Saturday, July 11, 2015

Camelot, Mercury Theatre Company

Around the year 1960, two Camelots opened to acclaim on the east coast: one in Washington DC and the other on Broadway. While JFK and family were getting ensconced in the White House and beginning to create their heralded “Camelot era,” the Lerner and Lowe production of Camelot was raising the curtain in New York City.

This tuneful show, based on the King Arthur legend and not nearly as funny as Spamalot, is now on stage at the Mercury Theatre Company. It’s a huge and gangly piece of work (the original out-of-town tryout back in the day ran more than four hours), and it still has vestiges of too many words, too many stories. But the Mercury troupe under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault manages to wrestle it to a draw while finding bits and pieces of the magic that has enthralled many audience members for decades.

The musical is a love triangle wrapped up in courtly manners and the idealistic dreams of uncertain Arthur, a King who wants to revamp the code of knighthood so that might serves right. He is about to be married to Guenevere, a girl who prefers a plain and simple life herself. They’re an odd couple for sure, but their path to a happiness is complicated when Lancelot, a French stud with a huge ego, appears and immediately turns off Guenevere. But after Lancelot defeats three knights in jousting and then appears to bring one back to life, she reconsiders her affections and starts getting chummy with Lance.

Lathered with the wonderful Lerner and Lowe tunes (“If Ever I Would Leave You,” “C’est Moi,” “The Lusty Month of May,” and the title song), the show is a treat for the ears. In this staging, the actors play all the instruments, with three pianos doing yeoman duty. And that works well for the most part, even though there are more than a few squeaky off-notes as some of the actors try to negotiate their choreography while blowing into horns and plucking guitars.

In the role of King Arthur, Roderick O’Toole is a rather thin and fidgety King, which works fine for this conflicted character at times. But he lacks the vocal and physical presence necessary to put Arthur at the center of all the action. Instead, attention swings towards Taylor Short, a fine singer who fashions a lusty Guenevere, and Robert Head, who comes on strong and alpha-dominant as Lancelot.

Much of the humor is provided by Brian Marshall, who makes King Pellinore, an old friend of Arthur’s family, into a hilarious old coot. The villainy, such as it is, is supplied by Tyler Coy as Mordred, Arthur’s scheming illegitimate son. In this version, Mordred’s partner in evil, his sorceress aunt Morgan le Fey, has been dispensed with, along with a couple of songs.

With most of the action centered on a raked platform, Brault has brought the grand spectacle of the Arthurian court down to an economy size. And as seen at the final dress rehearsal, this more intimate focus, with the jousting scenes done in silhouette with toy horses, seems to capture some of the wit and magic of this familiar legend.

Curiously, both Camelots ended in 1963: one with flagging ticket sales and the other in a burst of bullets. That left us all wishing and hoping for a real Camelot where "there's a legal limit to the show here," and where armies would actually use their might only for just causes. Ah, if there were only such spot…as Camelot.

Through July 25 at Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862,

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge of It, or The Train Play; convergence-continuum

Perhaps you’ve mused, from time to time when on a bus or other public conveyance, that every anonymous person around you must have an interesting story to tell. And if you could only go up to each one and ask them, you’d be swept away by their unique experiences and perspectives.

Well, you can forget that, based on the stories that are unloaded during The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge of It, or The Train Play by Liz Duffy Adams. Far less exciting than other train-centric yarns such as Strangers on a Train or The 3:10 to Yuma, and a good deal less profound than Thomas the Train, this trip is on a one-way track to Pretensionburg—with rest stops at Obfuscationville and West Whatthefuck. Of course, this train isn’t just any old train, it’s a chug-chug metaphor for all of our shared journeys to meaning, relevance, immortality, or a quickie in the last row.

Each of the characters hauls around a one dimensional persona that they are then challenged to make entertaining. The con-con cast under the direction of Clyde Simon often does a remarkably good job at that. Laurn B. Smith as the scientist who wants to be a bird (or just get laid) is hot-wired and focused. Taylor Tucker shows promise as the 12-year-old wanna-be superhero, the Leopard-Girl (although her moniker often sounds like “Leper-Girl,” which would be a whole different thing). And Jack Matuszewski is a hoot as one of three Russians who are traveling to support world peace. His Jim Nabors-like switch from his fey, scarf-twirling sighs to his basso profundo voice when he sings is most amusing.

Cody Zak is a bit too torqued as the torturously named Gabriel Angelfood, and Robert Branch never quite releases his compelling stage presence as another Russian. As Gaia, the Earth Goddess with a potty mouth and a gun, Marcia Mandell deploys an amorphous accent that shifts, intentionally or not, from England to Back Bay to Fairview Park—but somehow it works.

As for the plot, well, never mind. Each of the characters just gets up, riffs for a while about random topics—angels, humanity, yadda yadda—than sits down again. For a theater that used to employ video in almost all their shows, that technique is oddly absent here when it could be used to great effect as a moving backdrop for the train. Instead there aren’t even train windows on the back wall.

There are laughs at times, but this is a train that one should board with some caution. Hell, it almost makes one long for Starlight Express, in which the toy train cars come to life and roll around on skates. At least that show’s dime-store philosophizing had some movement.

The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge of It, or The Train Play
Through July 18 produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, Tremont, 216-687-0074,

Treasure Island, Oberlin Summer Theater Festival

If Robert Louis Stevenson never imagined his novel, about an innkeeper’s son who happens upon a map of buried treasure, as a stage play, he certainly should have. Because this production mounted by the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival earns a rating of “ARRR” for maximum pirate-y swashbuckling.

Treasure Island, as adapted by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo) is family fare. That is, if your family can handle some cartoonish violence (including a suspiciously bouncy decapitated head) and multiple stabbing homicides. Hey, these pirates mean business as Jim Hawkins (played by Colin Wulff with a resonant voice that sounds a lot more mature than that of a barely post-pubertal lad) learns early on.

Undaunted by the carnage surrounding him, Jim sets sail with a crew led in secret by Long John Silver, the very paragon of the stereotype pirate. Bedecked with a pegleg and a parrot (who seems as dead as the famous bird in the Monty Python sketch), Neil Thackaberry displays his professional acting talents while inserting curiously languorous pauses between beats. Still, one manages to get the whiff that some skullduggery is in the works, as he sidles up to Jim while plotting to nab the treasure.

Presented on a lumber-intensive set designed by director Paul Moser, the component pieces of a huge wooden ramp are frequently split apart to form the basic elements of other scenes, including a hut on Treasure Island itself.

Among the very capable cast are David Bugher as the impulsive Squire Trelawney, David Munnell as the amusing (and almost overplayed) marooned island inhabitant Ben Gunn, and Shane Lonergan in the dual role of Billy Bones and Calico Jack. Director Moser wisely keeps the adventure racing forward, so that you can almost feel a youngster avidly turning the pages of Stevenson’s iconic coming-of-age book.

This is the first of three offerings at the OSTF this summer, with the other two shows—Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Crumbs From the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage—playing in rep through August 8th. And best of all, it’s free of charge.

Treasure Island
Through August 8 at the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main St., Oberlin, 440-775-8169, (tickets are free, but reservations are suggested).