Charlotte Jones Buzzes Us from Bee Hive to Black Holes
by Barry David Horwitz
“Humble Boy,” an endearing, witty British comedy, sports a beautiful garden and a huge, glowing, phallic bee hive onstage. That spectacular giant bee hive glows and buzzes, a spaceship with a mysterious message.
“Humble Boy” opens with a ghostly scene of three space-suited beekeepers opening the luminous hive. “Humble Boy’ pits a stuttering astrophysicist against his overbearing, pretentious mum. Their bitter and funny lifelong struggle gives the play its sting. Will Felix escape the killer Queen Bee? The ending is sweet and full of Nature’s flowers and fun.
Charlotte Jones’ 2011 English garden comedy modernizes Hamlet and his Mum, his dead father, and that troublesome Uncle. Felix Humble (super-talented Steve Rhyne), thirty-ish astrophysicist, is also a nerd, a mama’s boy, and a self-deprecating lover. He studies the cosmos, flying far from his dead father’s humble bees.
As fastidious mom Flora Humble, Scarlett Hepworth kills it! Hepworth transcends the English middle-class mom, turning Flora into a jealous goddess commanding her brood. Flora’s whims matter more to her than her son. What horror she will produce next—to harass her humbled son? Hepworth makes Flora the queen bee we love to hate—a classic performance.
Steve Rhyne turns in another top-flight performance as the humble boy who left the comfortable garden and studies astrophysics at Cambridge. He has turned to the hard sciences to escape Flora’s petty peevishness. But Felix has come home because of the sudden death of his scientist father, who loved bees.
Rhyne’s weak, vacillating Felix Humble cannot make up his mind about much, whether it’s bees or Black Holes. Felix embodies the essence of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Rhyne makes his warring feelings believable and touching.
Caroline Schneider sparkles as hilarious family flunky Mercy Lott. Schneider stopped the show with Mercy’s explosive rant that destroys a stuffy English tea party—a great scene!
Mercy’s flat hair and waddling gait tell us that she’s no longer in the sexual race. Mercy serves Flora like a loyal worker bee, feeding and preparing the queen for more glory. She longs for the attentions of Flora’s slavish lover George Pye (a preening Ron Talbot). She makes a killer gazpacho, and unknowingly sprinkles a comic climax into the soup.
If you’re looking for a modern woman, enjoy decisive Rosie Pye (letter-perfect Li-Leng Au) who combines the best attributes of Ophelia and J-Lo in a commanding performance. Rosie is Felix’s former girlfriend and she smokes him out of humility, brilliantly. Don’t trifle with this engaging single mom!
The mysterious gardener (ethereal Russ Whismore) floats in and out, naming the flora and fauna, turning the show on its head by the end. Go to El Cerrito and see what happens when the bees escape that glowing hive.
Hearty laughter and a tear for a bee-you-ti-ful show. “Humble Boy” takes us on a joyful trip and delivers a sweet surprise.
“Humble Boy” by Charlotte Jones, directed by Ken Sonkin, scenic design by Benicia Martinez, at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrrito, California, through Sunday, March 10, 2019. Info: ccct.org
Cast: Steve Rhyne, Caroline Schneider, Scarlett Hepworth, Russ Whismore, Ron Talbot, and Li-Leng Au.