"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Those famous last words, variously attributed to a number of great actors, are famous because every performer knows they're true. It's all, as they say, in the timing. The throwaway quip, the perfectly placed punch line, even the pratfall and the pie in the face can fall flat if poorly executed. The hard part, of course, is making it all look easy.
Right now on area stages are several examples of what the Brits call knockabout comedy—shows where most of the laughs come from sight gags rather than funny wordplay. (A delicious example of the latter, The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, is currently playing at New Century Theatre in Northampton, and a show called Thwak! now at Hartford Stage is neither physical nor verbal, consisting mainly of vocal sound effects by the Australian duo the Umbilical Brothers.) But let's talk about knockabout.
At The Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst, the season theme is "That's Funny/That's Not Funny," asking What makes us laugh? What (and who) is fair game? When does tickling the funnybone start to hurt? The season opener earlier this month was performed without any words—maybe because they'd all been used up by the title, Help! Help! I Know This Title Is Long but Somebody's Trying to Kill Me!
Drew Richardson, known as "The Dramatic Fool," is a physical comedian in the silent movie tradition. As a solo performer, his props are his silent partners—inanimate objects that won't cooperate, and drag him into slapstick situations. Here he finds himself in a variety show where all the other performers have been murdered. The show must go on, and he must execute all their acts or he'll be next. It's a witty routine that parodies most of the old vaudeville staples—juggling, plate-spinning, magic tricks et al.—and gives new meaning to the performer's fear of "dying" onstage.
Where Help! Help! was silent, last week's Ko performance, The Misunderstood Badger, was excessively wordy, as befits a satire on academia. David Ferney played the badger-obsessed Dr. Harold Burrows (get it?) delivering a lecture on the year he has spent living in the wild to commune with the elusive mammal, up close and way too personal: he has taken on the creature's lifestyle, mannerisms and prickly personality.
The piece lampoons scholarly pretensions and conventions—the professor's lecture is heckled by his own PowerPoint slides, which make sassy remarks behind his back—as it explores our animal natures and the ways we mask them with logic and words.
The next two Ko shows mix the physical and verbal. This weekend's is Out of Sight by Sara Felder, a juggler who uses her art as metaphor. It's a mother-daughter dispute, juggling issues of queer and Jewish identity, family loyalty vs. personal truth, and the Israel-Palestine dilemma, pushing the envelope of what's funny/what's not a little farther.
Ko's season closes with Red Bastard, Cirque du Soleil alumnus Eric Davis's bouffon show. That's not a misprint of "buffoon." The bouffon is an anti-clown, not a bumbler but a provocateur, seeking not to please but to shock and mock. He's a physical freak—in this case, a red-clad demon with a grossly distended belly and butt. Like the Dramatic Fool, he's performing under duress, and he takes it out on the audience with playful but pointed banter that often bites.
This one may (or may not?) be funny, but it's definitely not "family friendly." There are, however, some high-energy kid-oriented shows to be found.
Pooh and Toad
Two productions this summer feature works of A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. Northampton's PaintBox Theatre opened its season with its version of the Pooh stories. Storyteller Tom McCabe's summer troupe stages beloved childhood tales with simple props and costumes (here, hoodies with ears) and lots of opportunities for participation. In Pooh, the whole audience played Christopher Robin's part, reading his lines in unison from an animated screen above the stage.
A not-so-ulterior motive of PaintBox is to encourage reading and literacy. Over six seasons at New Century Theatre, they've put more and more words both onstage and on-screen. It's good to see children's theater that's language-rich, but I missed the anarchic energy that fueled the earlier shows.
This week Chicken Little offers a lesson in ecology, and the PaintBox season ends in August with Pinocchio, both shows featuring the irrepressible Kelsey Flynn.
A.A. Milne also wrote the play Toad of Toad Hall, based on Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, Wind in the Willows. It's running (literally) in the tented Rose Footprint at Shakespeare & Company.
Irina Brook's production, with the Riverbank residents portrayed as Edwardian country folk, strays frequently from Milne's 1929 script to make room for ad libs and audience interaction. The show, alternately boisterous and rather static, is performed by the S&Co training company in two separate, 45-minute parts. Leader of the pack, as the exuberantly self-regarding Mr. Toad, is Danny Kurtz, an infectiously charming young actor who struts around the grounds in character before and after the show, chatting with his young audience.
If Shakespeare's tragedies are dark and potent, most of his comedies are sunny and playful. One of the cheeriest is Twelfth Night, or What You Will, so named because it's thought to have been written as an entertainment for the twelfth day of Christmas, an occasion for shameless excess and turning conventions on their heads. A delightfully rambunctious production plays through this weekend at Hampshire Shakespeare Company in Hadley.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's "pants plays," where a girl dresses up as a boy to protect her identity and/or her chastity. This one adds the twin trope, for when Viola becomes Cesario, she's indistinguishable from her brother Sebastian. Half the plot is a romantic triangle: disguised Viola in love with Duke Orsino, who pines for the icy Lady Olivia, who falls for "Cesario." Below stairs, meanwhile, Olivia's drunken uncle and the household help are carousing and tormenting her strait-laced steward Malvolio.
Director Barry Magnani's background in Commedia dell' Arte infuses the production with high spirits and low comedy. The mostly young cast is inevitably uneven, but most of the performances are convincingly droll. Even the romantic leads get to join the fun, as Kaileela Hobby's Olivia descends from haughty disdain to adolescent squeals in her infatuation with Anna Young's baffled Viola.
Magnani has moved Shakespeare's Mediterranean setting to a Caribbean port town, complete with calypso band. Robert Williams, a big barrel of a man, makes the tipsy Toby Belch a genial master of the revels. His fellow mischief makers include, most memorably, Theo Maltz as timorous Andrew Aguecheek and Elizabeth Reynolds, who gives the crafty barmaid Maria a sassy swagger and a lilting island accent.
The outdoor venue is a versatile multi-level stage framed by a majestic view of the Holyoke Range. But it's at the mercy of the elements, and last Thursday's performance was interrupted by a thunderstorm. The show carried on indoors, restaged against the broad stairway of the Hartsbrook School's lobby, less expansive but no less entertaining.
Next weekend, Hampshire Shakespeare's Young Company perform their own version of Twelfth Night. Coincidentally, Shakespeare & Company's production of the play begins previews this weekend. More about that, and the rest of the Lenox troupe's season, next week.
When and Where
Ko Festival of Performance: Holden Theater, Amherst College, Friday-Sunday through Aug. 2, (413) 542-3750, http://www.kofest.com.
PaintBox Theatre: New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center, Smith College, Northampton, Wednesday-Saturday this week and Aug. 5-8, (413) 585-3220, http://www.newcenturytheatre.org.
Toad of Toad Hall: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, through Aug. 29, free, (413) 637-3353, http://www.shakespeare.org.
Twelfth Night: Hampshire Shakespeare Company, Hartsbrook School, 193 Bay Road, Hadley, through July 26, tickets at the door or http://www.hampshireshakespeare.org.