In the second show of its sixth season, Savannah's Collective Face Theatre Ensemble will present the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Harvey," continuing the season's theme of marginalized matters.
Each year, artistic director David I.L. Poole gears the programming around a particular theme constructed from a variety of sources, including audience feedback. Beginning with September's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," the ensemble will close out the season with "The Great Gatsby" in March and "August: Osage County" in May.
"Harvey" opens Dec. 1 and will run for three weekends at the Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium at Savannah State University.
Mary Chase's "Harvey" premiered on Broadway in late 1944 and closed after a run of 1,775 performances. It won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has since received a multitude of revivals, as well as film and television adaptations around the world. The most famous film adaptation starred James Stewart as the play's main character, Elwood P. Dowd. Co-star Josephine Hull won an Academy Award for her performance in the film.
Dowd, a friendly man, has a presumably imaginary friend called Harvey, who is represented as a 6 foot, 3 inch anthropomorphic rabbit (or pÃºca). Dowd's sister Veta becomes worried about his behavior and attempts to have him committed to a sanitarium, opening the door for hilarity.
In his approach to staging "Harvey," Poole wanted to dig into the nature of madness, and how comedy shapes our perceptions of the world around us.
"We have decided to make a true farce," Poole said. "We've gone into a sort of vaudevillian, laughing farce version of this play.
"I brainstormed a lot about this play. It's a pÃºca, which is kind of an interesting thing. [Chase] chose a pÃºca, rather then just saying it's a rabbit. I looked at the folklore of a pÃºca, and it's a shapeshifter. I looked at rabbits in literature and the famous white rabbit is from 'Alice in Wonderland.' I was like, well, we're dealing with madness here, who's crazy and who's not. Isn't it we're chasing after the rabbit? We're chasing the rabbit down through the rabbit hole. The concept started to emerge from that."
From that foundation, the ensemble - currently in residence at Savannah State University - has worked to build a world where the alleged madness of the main character speaks to the world he exists in. The staging and colors will play as a character, helping to set that mood.
"The play has to deal with our heads in the clouds," Poole said. "The color palette became this 'Alice in Wonderland,' Tim Burton-esque palette. I won't reveal all of it; it will spoil the surprise. The idea was to go ultra, ultra, ultra high-fashion meets Tim Burton colors.
"All of the costumes are in these bright colors, with the exception of Elwood. Everybody lives in this wild, crazy world, and what if that is the norm and he was odd? I decided to put Elwood in all black and white plaid from head to toe. There's a statement, that he's a little different, but still fits in this zany, crazy world."
Collective Face turned to one of its regular leading men to helm the roll of Elwood, Eric Salles, who got his acting start with the company several years ago and has since become a stalwart of the stage. The play also stars Julie Kessler as Veta Louise Simmons, as well as Bobbie Renee Lewis, Gary Shelby, Philip John Trossarello, Maya Caldwell, Jessica Lyn and Newman Smith in supporting roles.
"He's come a long way!" Poole said. "Eric is my character actor, comedian. His Elwood is very, very interesting. He's studied Bill Erwin, under my suggestion, and Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges, and there's a sense of that undercurrent going on."
Poole says "Harvey" is "a good-hearted American classic" that most everyone loves.
"It's kind of good for all audiences," Poole continued. "The original play was great for all audiences, but this has contemporarized it in a way that I think audiences will relate to more and have a grand ole' time."
IF YOU GO
What: Collective Face Theatre Ensemble presents "Harvey"
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 1, 2, 8, 9, 15, 16; 3 p.m. Dec. 3, 10, 17
Where: Savannah State University, Kennedy Fine Arts Auditorium
Cost: $25; $20 for seniors, students, military; $5 SSU students