Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Harold and Maude
On the brink of exiting his teen years, Harold Chasen is a quiet, well-dressed, rich kid obsessed with death. For recreation, he attends funerals in between visiting junk and demolition yards. In his room are a collection of daggers, a skeleton, and an electric chair. He has faked his suicide seventeen times, and that does not count all the made-up maimings. Today he is hanging head-bent and unmoving with a roped noose around his neck in his mother's lush flower garden just as she is orienting the new maid–a young girl who screams in horror as she looks out the window at what appears to be a quite dead body. It is just another typical day in the Chasen household, with his exasperated mother sighing, "Oh, Harold, I have one-hundred-and-one things to do, and you are not even dressed for dinner."
Katelyn Miller sends her voice through rounds of vocal calisthenics, jumping to upper octave heights with an exaggerated feigned-aristocracy accent as her perky Mrs. Chasen never misses a chance to talk incessantly, giving whomever she is conversing with–including her son–little chance to respond. She is determined to make her life easier and to marry Harold to someone/anyone, first setting him up with a local psychoanalyst–Dr. Matthews played with calming cool by Steve Allhoff–and then registering Harold with the National Computer Dating Service for three blind dates. The only problem with the latter plan is that Harold greets each potential date (all hilariously played by Michelle Skinner) only after another of his incredibly realistic brushes with death. (Gotta a match to light the kerosene?)
Harold escapes his mother's silver-service tea times with potential brides by attending funerals of people he does not know. It is at one such solemn event that he meets an elderly woman munching on a bag of nuts and offering him an orange just as the eulogy is about to start. Introducing herself as Countess Matilda Chardin, the exuberantly pleasant (and also constantly chattering) woman dressed somewhere between gypsy and hippy tells him just to call her "Maude."
And thus begins the unlikeliest of friendships that leads to adventures the young Harold could never have imagined in all his death-focused past. Living life to its fullest is the very essence of this eccentric, diminutive lady of almost eighty. That she rescues a City Hall tree in a cement pot only to try and replant it in a graveyard, that she has a seal named Mister Murgatroyd in her tub which she released from its dirty-water pool in the zoo, or that she frequently steals (temporarily) any nearby car when needed using a set of keys once given to her by a follower of Zen as he left the penitentiary–these at first somewhat shock Harold but soon just become the very reasons he genuinely likes her. And the fact that he does not judge and comes along willingly for the ride is more than enough for the cheerful, mischievous sprite to befriend him as well.
As Maude, Lillian Bogovich glides about the stage as if her feet never touch the ground. She is a delight to behold and a great source of laughter from an audience that clearly learns to love Maude nearly as much as does Harold. Her movements are often like that of a ballet dancer, with hands that express in ever-flowing manners the joy she sees in a sunflower, a majestic tree, or the last sight of her dear seal now heading out to sea. Maude sparkles from head to toe as she introduces Harold to music, to waltzing, or to his first experience with such "organics" as champagne and weed. The unquestionable sincerity and deeply defined genuineness that Maude exudes lead neither Harold nor us to question the merit of her self-made art pieces like "Rainbow with Egg Under Elephant" or a fireplace adorned with a nude of herself. Neither he nor we bat an eye when she strikes a chime and music suddenly fills the air. And the fact on her eightieth birthday she is now standing on her head (Bravo, Lillian Bogovich!), but of course. Maude is Maude.
Equally impressive but for reasons mostly opposite is the performance of Max Mahle as Harold. More often than not–at least before he learns to abide by Maude's cheer of "Go, team, go ... L-I-V-E"–his Harold is a boy of under-expressed emotions and reactions, even as his mother is peppering him with questions or reprimands. With head often half-bowed and totally deadpan looks as once again he pulls off a prank like chopping off a hand or bringing a smoking rifle in to meet a potential date, Harold moves about almost as a ghost. Only after he meets and spends time with Maude climbing trees, smelling "Christmas in New York" from her invented "odorifics" machine, or singing "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" with her joyfully and off-key, does Harold transform into a much lighter, expressive, wide-eyed boy who is quickly learning what it might be like to love as a man.
Filling out this splendid cast is Jonathan Covey as the local parish's shy and interpersonally awkward Irish priest, Father Finnigan, who becomes tongue-tied flustered around Maude and her latest, outlandish act. Marc Berman and Joshua Klein are officious but never odious as gardeners and constables who seek quite unsuccessfully to steer Maude into the straight and narrow. Erica Racz is the maid who says few words aloud but speaks volumes with rolling eyes, lips silently tut-tutting, and a face full of disgusted dismissal as Harold tries yet another of his false attempts to exit life.
Gary Landis clearly has had a ball directing this fine cast and exceptional creative team, pulling out stop after stop to amuse and amaze the audience. Serving as also set and projection designer, he has created homes for the Chasens and for Maude that fit their personalities and individual quirks to a "t"the two living areas are separated by an elevated, indoor terrace leading to projected gardens, forests, and seaside scenes created by Landis' projections. Hats off to Erica Racz for the hundreds of often fantastical properties that fill both houses and Harold's ventures into death. The breath-catching videos created by Kevin Ohlson realistically re-create some of Harold's death-defying "projects" and later become a touching review of his memories of times with Maude. And Lisa Claybaugh has donned Mrs. Chasen with the latest of early 1970s design wear enhanced with glittering broaches and Maude with the hippest of what one might have bought along Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue.
Finally, just as in the movie, the music of Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam connects each of the many scenes, providing a running score whose words and rhythms have been specifically chosen to match each section of the story. Music director Arlan Feiles–himself an accomplished musician and performer–has curated the eighteen songs by artists including himself. A CD or streamed version of the musical journey of early-career folk, pop, and rock songs of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer would be icing on the cake for this evening of pure magical fun, Los Altos Theatre Company's latest gift to the community, Harold and Maude.
Harold and Maude runs through May 7, 2023, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. For tickets and information, please visit losaltosstage.org.