Whip-smart and wickedly funny. That’s the best description of the upcoming Denton Community Theatre summer show, Sly Fox.
Elevated by an all-star cast — Dennis Welch plays the title role, with uber-competent wingmen Johnny Williams as the judge, Bradley Speck as the bootlicking Abner Truckle and Kevin Wickersham as Fox’s con-artist-in-arms Simon Able — Sly Fox is the sort of show that never ages past its relevance thanks to Larry Gelbart’s crisp, smart writing and the stubborn nature of greed.
Veteran director Bill Kirkley guides a strong ensemble through the story of a pair of con artists, Foxwell Sly and Simon Able. The dangerous duo arrives in 18th-century San Francisco, ready to skim gold rush money from the booming banking and trade town.
Their target? An unscrupulous group of suspects: Miss Fancy, a prostitute who means to marry so that her bastard child can have a name and standing; Abner Truckle, an accountant so money-hungry that he offers his devout and devoted wife to Sly to curry extra favor; Craven, a lawyer who uses the court to seal his own profit; and Jethro Crouch, a man who would disown his son for a stipend.
There are a few noble folk in our midst in Sly Fox: Mrs. Truckle, who is played as an honest and simple Christian woman by Mallory Bryant-Gawne, and the servants of Sly’s house.
Kirkley said auditions brought out a lot of men — which doesn’t happen with every show.
“I think it’s the play,” he said. “I think the guys who showed up knew the play, liked it and wanted to be in it.”
Williams said he found himself negotiating with his wife, Jo, to try out for the show. If he got a part, the couple’s summer plans would have to change.
“I read the play a few days before auditions,” Williams said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to be in this show. I went to Jo and said, ‘I really want to be in this show.’ And she was great, like she always is, and supportive, as she always is. Here I am.”
Kirkley saw the play on Broadway and was a fan before the final curtain dropped. Gelbart’s dialogue is sharp, and his farce is more subtle than other popular farces. For instance, Sly Fox doesn’t have a mistaken-identity plot, or a chorus of doors opening and closing. The farce is in the relationships, and the bald manipulation Sly and Able use to hoodwink their targets.
“This is a show you have to listen to,” Kirkley said. “The humor is in the dialogue.”
Not that Kirkley has suspended his usual flair for physical comedy.
The director said he’s worried a little about the set because of the grabbing, falling and jumping the cast does. Welch even executes a full backward somersault across a canopy bed in one scene.
Welch said Sly Fox reinforces the theater adage that “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” For Welch, it was hard to explain how he created a character the audience doesn’t want to kill.
“When I read this play, I kept wondering, ‘What is it that makes this guy likable?’” Welch said. “He’s just as greedy as all the others, if not more. But he is likable, and it’s not easy to understand what it is.”
Kirkley suggested that audiences and actors like Sly because he is deliberate in choosing the targets he’ll scam.
“These people can afford it,” Kirkley said. “He’s not going out and scamming poor people, or widows and and kids who are vulnerable. He’s going after people who can afford it.”
And during a rehearsal, Welch played Sly as a winking adventurer whose moral compass is rusty. He enjoys his well-funded life, padded by other people’s ill-gotten gains. He and Wickersham’s Simon Able appear to treat the con as a romping chess match.
Williams said all of the characters have to be careful to keep these characters between cartoons and lifelike souls.
“A lot of times, I worry that I’ll go too far. You don’t want it to be silly. Funny, yes, but you don’t want to push too far,” he said.
Speck, Williams and Welch have all had plenty of turns in the director’s chair, and said it can be hard to turn off the critical eye that directing develops. Speck said he, Williams and Welch have thrown themselves into the acting.
“As actors, this is what we do. We develop a bit,” Speck said. “We come up with things to experiment with. You think about trying something, and you get into rehearsal and try it. You have to commit to it, too.”
Kirkley said his approach has been to let the all-star cast flex its muscles when it comes to creating bits.
“I’ve been directed by every one of these gentlemen,” he said of Williams, Welch and Speck. “Each time, I take a little bit of him with me, and a little bit of him, and a little bit of him. You add it to your own point of view and your own way of directing.
“Darrell Woolwine was my first idea of what a director should be. A director should be a compass. A director should point actors the way they want them to go, and tell them if they’re getting off in the wrong direction. I’ve been the compass for these guys.”
Williams said the actors playing smaller parts have carried their share of the work. In particular, Williams said Chelsea Grosskopf made cards needed for some scenes entirely by hand. And John Rodgers, who plays the bit part of the court clerk, made an impression on his cast mates.
“John always gives a hundred percent to any role he plays — he’s been great to work with,” Williams said. “To go from doing All My Sons to playing a bit part, he’s been as serious about both roles.”
Kirkley can’t seem to stay away from lovable con men. He staged Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a few seasons ago.
“It’s been fun to watch Dennis and Kevin grow,” he said Tuesday. Kirkley didn’t want to drop any spoilers, but said the actors have built an apprentice-master relationship that feels as complicated and real as it’s written to be.
“They could play it a lot of different ways, but tonight, watching the final scene, my heart broke a little bit because of some things Dennis did. It’s been interesting to watch [him] and Kevin and to see all these choices they’ve made.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
What: Denton Community Theatre presents “Sly Fox” by Larry Gelbart, based on Ben Jonson’s “Volpone”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and June 14-15; 2 p.m. Sunday and June 16
Where: Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
Details: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and older, and $10 for students and children. For reservations, call 940-382-1915.
On the Web: www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com
Cast and crew
Simon Able — Kevin Wickersham
Foxwell Sly — Dennis Welch
Lawyer Craven — Mike Strecher
Jethro Crouch — Robert Ize
Abner Truckle — Brad Speck
Miss Fancy — Polly Maynard
Mrs. Truckle — Mallory Bryant-Gawne
Captain Crouch — Sterling Gafford
Chief of Police — Bryan Patrick
Court Clerk — John Rodgers
The Judge — Johnny Williams
Servants/Police/Bailiff — Aaron N. Martin, Chelsea Grosskopf and Corey Lyon
Bill Kirkley — director
Kim Campbell and Vicki Kirkley — producers
Ryan Ridgeway — stage manager
Elsie Barrow — costume designer
Betty Kay Seibt — assistant to costume designer