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Tom McCamus as Horace Vandergelder in “The Matchmaker.”

4 out of 4 stars

The Matchmaker
Written by
Thornton Wilder
Directed by
Chris Abraham
Tom McCamus, Seana McKenna
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Stratford, Ont
Runs Until
Saturday, October 27, 2012

At the end of a week where the world seemed particularly sick with unimaginable horrors and mundane ones, The Matchmaker was just what the doctor ordered.

Director Chris Abraham's giddy, glorious production of Thornton Wilder's 1955 comedy is a balm to the soul, an evening of pure, restorative joy.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion." So says The Matchmaker's Horace Vandergelder, a half-millionaire merchant from Yonkers who is, financially at least, part of the 1 per cent, since the setting is 1880s America.

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With the Internet and online dating still a good century away, Horace, played by Tom McCamus swaddled in formidable mutton chops, has hired a crafty matchmaker named Dolly Levi (Seana McKenna) to help him find a second wife while avoiding becoming a fool. Little does he know that he's being played for one, with Dolly's long, exhaustive search having already ended and a wife all picked out for him: herself.

At the start of The Matchmaker, Horace's entire household is headed to New York for the day – whether to woo or be hidden from wooers. Horace is trying to keep his niece Ermengarde (Cara Ricketts) from eloping, so she's shipped off to Manhattan with a gentle drunkard named Malachi (Geraint Wyn Davies) keeping watch for her intended – an artist named Ambrose (Skye Brandon), who is in hot pursuit.

Horace's chief clerk Cornelius (Mike Shara) and his apprentice Barnaby (Josh Epstein) are supposed to stay behind in Yonkers to mind the shop, but they too decide to sneak a rare day off and hop the train to the city.

Naturally, all the characters cross paths there – first at the hat shop of widowed milliner Irene Molloy (Laura Condlln), then a fancy restaurant, and finally at the home of a wealthy spinster named Flora Van Huysen (played with mock-operatic airs by Nora McLellan).

Despite its historical connection to Stratford – Wilder rewrote the comedy here in the 1950s, under the invitation of Tyrone Guthrie – The Matchmaker initially seemed an unusual choice for the Festival Theatre, and a surprising one for Abraham to make his directorial debut there. The Toronto-based director is best known for his work on Canadian and contemporary plays and tightly controlled work in black boxes.

His Matchmaker, however, reveals a hitherto hidden genius for creating comic mayhem on a grand scale. Abraham gets the mathematics of pratfalls exactly right, but what really impresses is the way he whips up the end of each scene into a frenzied fog, where farce tips over into a kind of delirium that is totally intoxicating. (He also uses the thrust stage inventively, not always circulating his actors around it, but sometimes offering different slices of the audience different views on the action – for instance, in the restaurant scene, aligning half the spectators with the eavesdroppers, the other half with the eavesdropped upon.)

Abraham also elicits best-possible performances from each of his cast members, even those in small parts (Andrea Runge's delightful short-sighted shop assistant Minnie) or a tiny one (Victor Dolhai as a waiter having a nervous breakdown).

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As the Ferris Buellers having their day off, Shara and Epstein are the engine of the show, constantly having to dive into closets or under tables or disguise themeselves in women's clothing, pulling off the physical comedy with aplomb. As young Barnaby, however, Epstein is so adorable that you'll want to put him in your pocket and take him home with you. His performance is master-class in character-driven laughs and each of his nervous, mouse-like movements reduced me to a puddle of happiness.

In each act of The Matchmaker, Wilder puts the action on pause and allows a character to step out and deliver a little sermon about vice or adventure to the audience. Delivered with wet-eyed worldliness, Dolly's rumination about money particularly resonated amid the bubbling generational warfare that is hitting the Western world: "Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow."

While Wilder's open-hearted plays do soothe, they are never blinkered, false or selling you a bill of goods; the real world is always waiting in the wings. In The Matchmaker, he somehow turns a simple and silly story into a masterpiece that, like Our Town, is about the mysterious beauty of being alive.

In an introduction to a play called Jacob's Dream, Wilder wrote, "To survive, a story must arouse wonder, wonder in both the senses in which we now employ the word: astonishment at the extent of man's capability for good and evil, and speculations as to the sources of that capability."

There's no better way to describe what is achieved by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's prouction of The Matchmaker – it is full of wonder, and it is wonderful. To all involved: Thank you.

The Matchmaker runs at Stratford's Festival Theatre until Oct. 27.

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