Tag Archives: British comedy

Beyond the Bard

The Utah Shakespeare Festival includes both works by Shakespeare and works by other playwrights in each season’s selections. While in Cedar City for the festival’s summer 2011 season we saw matinee performances of three non-Shakespeare works at the Randall L. Jones Theatre, built in 1989.

The Randall L. Jones Theatre (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival.)

The first was “The Glass Menagerie” by playwright Tennessee Williams, the tale of a mother and two grown children still living at home. It’s set in 1937 St. Louis, which might feel world’s apart were it not for the opening monologue delivered by Ben Jacoby, who performs the role of Tom Wingfield. He makes clear the parallels between then and now, including tough economic times.

Ben Jacoby as Tom Wingfield in the Utah Shakespeare Festival 2011 production of The Glass Menagerie (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakepeare Festival.)

The second was “Noises Off!” by playwright Michael Frayn, who breaks the tale of actors performing in a British adult farce into three acts — showing a different perspective of how the farce “Nothing On” unfolds in each act. We see the actors, each with a host of personal and professional shortcomings, stumble through a final rehearsal and two jumbled performances (witnessing one as it unfolds backstage).

Melinda Parrett (left) as Belinda Blair, Betsy Mugavero as Poppy Norton-Taylor, Ben Livingston as Lloyd Dallas, Ally Carey as Brooke Ashton, and Jeanne Paulsen as Dotty Otley in the Utah Shakespeare Festival 2011 production of Noises Off!. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2011.)

The third was “The Music Man,” based on a story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey. The musical features book, music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson. It recounts the tale of a traveling con man who makes a living selling musical instruments to parents who fear their children might otherwise discover darker pursuits like playing pool.

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival 2011 production of The Music Man (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival.)

In each case, the comedy was simply exquisite. It helps to start with great material, I suppose. Quinn Mattfeld, who performs the role of Garry Lejeune in “Noises Off!,” delivered one of the best comedic performances I’ve ever seen. I ran into Mattfeld before Friday evening’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (another comedy honed to perfection by festival actors and artistic staff) and asked about how such a fabulous bit of funny comes to be.

Quinn Mattfeld (L) as Garry Lejeune and Ally Carey as Brooke Ashton in the Utah Shakespeare Festival 2011 production of Noises Off! (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival.)

Mattfeld gives playwrights at least half the credit, noting that directors and actors make up the balance of the mix. True magic happens on stage when the best writing meets the best direction and acting. Other artistic elements contribute too — choreography, costumes, props, lighting, sound and such.

Laura Griffith (L) as Marian Paroo and Brian Vaughn as Harold Hill in the Utah Shakespeare Festival 2011 production of The Music Man (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival.)

Each of the six productions we saw at this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival appeared both flawless and effortless. Attention to detail is evident at every level, as is thinking beyond the boundaries of what you might imagine for any given scene or production. It’s these qualities that make each work fresh, even for those of us who have seen them performed time and time again.

— Lynn

Coming up: More Shakespeare on Valley stages, Who let the “CATS” out?, National Youth Arts Awards, Bugged out!

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Find your grail

In one of the few semi-serious moments during the musical “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the cast sings a song about finding your grail. It’s hard to relate to because, frankly, I’m satisfied most days with simply finding my mail.

Lizabeth and I have long had tickets to see “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which is being presented by Theater League at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix through Sunday.

I may have stumbled onto Monty Python a bit too early in life to really get the gag, so I can’t say that I was a huge fan going into this show. But my appreciation for the offbeat humor has grown since seeing “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

Though the comedic elements differ, this show reminds me in many ways of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Just add in plenty of references to gay men and Jews, and props such as herring.

Loved the lively music, colorful costumes and bright, shiny lights. Loved the references to pop culture from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga. Loved the scenes spoofing other musicals (I won’t name names). Loved Sir Robin (Martin Glyer) and The Lady of the Lake (Caroline Bowman).

I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed as much, or as loudly, as I did throughout this performance. Folks sitting nearby would be asking for refunds had they not been suffering from a similar affliction. Plus, as a character notes during the show: “What happens in Camelot, stays in Camelot!”

Before the curtain came up on Act I, a Theatre League representative announced their 2011-2012 season — which includes “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Rat Pack is Back,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Grease” (plus some other goodies you’ll find noted on their website).

He also announced that students from a local high school were in the house (there to support a teacher all duded up with knight gear for a brief bit in the show). I chatted with four of the students during intermission, who eagerly told me about their spring musical (“The Music Man”) and the school’s theater program.

One especially articulate student in particular impressed me with her poise, confidence, professional demeanor and genuine enthusiasm for musical theater.

I invited her to submit a guest blog for possible online publication, so watch for her review during the next day or two. She’s a repeat “Spamalot” offender who really seems to know her stuff — and I’ve no doubt she’ll one day capture her grail.

As I drove home from the show, Lizabeth leaned against the front passenger-side car door and fell asleep while clutching her purple “I’m Not Dead Yet” T-shirt.

When we pulled into our driveway, a single glance in her direction reaffirmed what I’ve long known.

I’ve already found my grail.

— Lynn

Note: Spamalot contains adult language and situations, so this one is not for the kiddies (who might also miss the humor in the show’s “killer rabbit”).

Coming up: Searching for Seussical, Scottsdale Conservatory Theatre, What’s up with one-acts?

Got Spam?

"Spamalot" opens tonight (Feb 15) at the Mesa Arts Center

You can “Spamalot” this week as Theater League brings the 2005 Tony Award winner for best musical to Mesa and Phoenix stages.

Spamalot” creators say the musical — complete with cows, killer rabbits, show girls and french people — is “lovingly ripped off from the classic film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

It’s a very grown-up take on the legendary tale of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, though the legend may be fading fast in the absence of disco versions of knight battles made for various home and pocket entertainment systems.

Even worse perhaps, is the fact that so few of our children have ever met a can of actual Spam, a product of the Hormel Food Corporation. It faded from popularity as things like sushi and arugula marched in, but I think a Spam-sushi mash up of sorts might be fun.

The fine folks of “Spamalot” will gladly take you through the tale of King Arthur’s quest in a little online ditty titled “What is all this rubbish?” They also make a convincing case for “Spamalot” as the world’s oldest musical.

The “Spamalot” you’ll see on Valley stages this week features book by Eric Idle and score by Eric Idle and John Du Prez. Hence you’ll enjoy both words and music in addition to dancing knights in tights.

But what, you may be wondering, is a Monty Python? And has it anything to do with that “Flying Circus” of yore? It does indeed, as explained ever so eloqently by a BBC piece you can enjoy by clicking here.

Whether you’re a lover of musical theater, of British comedy or of unadulterated genius, check out the touring production of “Spamalot” at the Mesa Center for the Arts and/or the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix.

And always look on the bright side of “Spam.”

— Lynn

Note: Click here for an overview of the legends of King Arthur by Michael Wood for the BBC.

Coming up: Reflections on Rosie’s House, The fine art of stage combat, ASU Gammage readies to unveil its 2011-2012 season, Tales of Tom Chapin

The fine art of farce

A Valley reviewer recently dubbed Phoenix Theatre’s “Noises Off” the “best comedy you are likely ever to see.” I’d be inclined to agree had I not seen so much fabulously funny fare from this professional theater company through the years.

There’s plenty more to come from Phoenix Theatre — including the first production of the racy Broadway musical “Avenue Q” by an Arizona theater company. Who’s to say they won’t outdo themselves yet again?

Their casting is simply superb — and this show is no exception. Add a complex and creative set, maddeningly funny material and music to knock your socks (or boxer shorts) off — and you have a farce that’s nothing short of fine art.

"Noises Off" elevates farce to a fine art (Photo by Laura Durant)

Direction by Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, only fuels the flames — for both the fantastically talented cast and the audience members who mistakenly presume they are out for a night of modest theater.

Picture yourself in a British theater waiting for the curtain to rise on “Nothing On” presented by “A Noise Within” productions. You’re leafing through the program only to discover actor/creative team credits that include playing Britain’s most famous lollypop lady, winning a coveted medal for violence, and loving anything small and furry.

It’s easy to imagine because every “Noises Off” playbill includes a fictitious “Nothing On” program replete with cast/creative team bios as well as a lovely bit of dramaturgy borrowed from an expert ‘in the semantics of Bedroom Farce.’

Members of the "Noises Off" cast in all their slapstick glory (Photo by Laura Durant)

If you carefully read the pseudo-program before the curtain opens, you’ll get your fix of fascinating facts about various elements of the production — the slamming doors, the falling trousers, mistaken identities and more.

You’ll discover that uproarious laughter, for some, “is a metaphysical representation of the sexual act.” If that’s the case, you’re in for one heck of an orgy when you see this show.

Good news for parents: Other than a black negligee and boxer shorts (not worn together, thankfully), there’s little that’s explicitly rude or crude in this show. It’s rife with inuendo, but I can’t imagine that many kids would catch the subtleties. They will, however, appreciate the many triumphs in physical comedy.

You never know where that baggage might end up (Photo by Laura Durant)

“Noises Off” by Michael Frayn consists of three acts featuring the folly of a ficticious “Nothing On” production. Act I depicts the final rehearsal for “Nothing On” — setting up characters and situations that won’t be fully appreciated until later in the work. It’s funny, but you won’t yet find yourself wishing you’d made that last minute potty stop.

Act II reveals a bevy of backstage bungling as we witness a performance of “Nothing On” from behind the scenes. It’s funnier and more outrageous than the first, but the farce really hits the fan during Act III, when we finally see the onstage mayhem as it appears to unwitting audience members.

Plenty of pratfalls involve persnickety props — a disappearing and reappearing plate of sardines, a rotary dial phone with a tendency-to-tangle cord, flowers that never cease to find their way into the wrong suitors’ hands. The rotating set-piece — the two-story home where “Nothing On” is set — is equally delightful.

I do have to wonder, though, whether younger audiences would be more appreciative if the work was updated a bit with Starbucks in lieu of sardines or computer wires in lieu of telephone cords. Of course, there’d be no stopping there since the world may soon be wireless — and the modern day quest for efficiency robbed of sensual pleasures like reading a paperback book over a cup of coffee might just as easily bring caffeine injections via some sort of biochip.

Steer clear of slippery sardines, among other things (Photo by Laura Durant)

It’s been several days since I saw the play, being performed at Phoenix Theatre through Sept 19 (extended from Sept 12 due to ‘popular demand and critical acclaim’). But I still find myself leafing through the actual program — where I’m learning all sorts of things about our local talent.

Leann Dearing (Brooke) and her husband Matthew are acting instructors with Dearing Acting Studio. Mike Lawler (Selsdon) is a member of Phoenix Theatre’s “Partners That Heal” program. Maren Maclean (Belinda) has extensive Shakespeare experience (including several seasons as education outreach director for Southwest Shakespeare Company) — which I’m convinced is the best training ground for the craft of comedy.

Gail Wolfenden-Steib (costume designer) operates Rukshana Raks!, a custom dancewear business specializing in belly dance costumes for both cabaret and tribal dance styles. Katie McNamara (properties designer) has worked as a prop artisan for the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and others.

Matthew Wiener (director) holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. Michael J. Eddy (production manager/lighting designer) sits on the board of Scorpius Dance Theatre (which presents “A Vampire Tale” to sold out crowds each Halloween season). Pasha W. Yamotahari (assistant director and more) holds a journalism degree from the Cronkite School at ASU and has earned dramaturge and critic awards from the presitigious Kennedy Center.

Beware of doors that fly open or slam shut (Photo by Laura Durant)

Despite the farcical nature of the fare, I came away from it asking myself a rather serious question. Might I want to be a dramatuge when I grow up? Thankfully, I still have time to decide.

In the meantime, being an avid supporter of the Valley’s arts scene is a mighty fine gig.

–Lynn

Note: Mention the word “sardines” when ordering your tickets to enjoy a $5 savings while the offer lasts.

Coming up: Lynn and Liz encounter a frog and a toad a la Childsplay in Tempe; “Music Man” (with Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Theatre) meets the Musical Instrument Museum; Making magic happen

Photos (from the top): Joseph Kremer;  Mike Lawler, Joseph Kremer, Christopher Williams, Maren Maclean, Cathy Dresbach; Christopher Williams, Leeann Dearing; Christopher Williams, Cathy Dresbach; Joseph Kremer, Cathy Dresbach, Robert Kolby Harper, Leeann Dearing (counter-clockwise from top left). All photos by Laura Durant of Durant Communications.