Sunday, June 16, 2013

Chivalry is not dead yet, just incapacitated by laughter, in 'Monty Python's Spamalot'


Fondness for the venerated English legends of King Arthur doesn't stand a chance in the BOBDIREX production of Monty Python's Spamalot, which runs through June 29 at the Athenaeum Theater.

The show celebrates in the worst way the time (932 for those keeping score at home)  when knighthood was in flower —though this is the squirting kind that clowns wear in their lapels. The energy and panache of the local production is indelibly Pythonesque.

The British troupe's Eric Idle contrived the award-winning stage adaptation  of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) with the blessing of his mates. Collaborating with composer John Du Prez, Idle also sends up the Broadway musical, with its soaring romantic duets ("The Song That Goes Like This") and its anthemic inspirational songs. Here, it's  "Find Your Grail," which manages to put in a stuffy box the likes of "Climb Every Mountain" and "The Impossible Dream."

Arthur (Charles Goad) tries to think, as Patsy (Paul Hansen) looks on.
Your laugh muscles will get a workout, if they tend to be galvanized by utter nonsense. The male bonding of the Knights of the Round Table provides a fat target for numerous barbs. The list includes  sexual repression (Lancelot comes out in a strutting production number), testosterone-fueled bravado, the ambiguity of directives from a sky god, and idealization of the man cave (Camelot becomes a cheesy Las Vegas knockoff).

That adorable showman Bob Harbin and his cast have crafted  moment after moment of high-quality lunacy. Some of the city's best comic actors have been enlisted to inhabit the grossly entertaining caricatures that populate the show. Choreography by Kenny Shepard has variety and is structured seamlessly into the music, which is smartly rendered by music director Trevor Fanning's band.

Costuming ingenuity and flair are demanded from scene to scene, ranging from the bulky Knights Who Say 'Ni'  to the flamboyant Rainbow Dancers, who help Lancelot realize his suppressed identity. Garb that's seen once and then vanishes has to be instantly eye-catching, because the show-biz devil is always making work for Idle's mind — and thus for any production team that dares to stage the show. Case in point: the mockery of ethnic oddities in "Fisch Schlapping Song," as the musical "mistakenly" opens in Finland rather than England, as instructed by the pompous yet avuncular Historian (Carl Cooper).

As King Arthur, Charles Goad is a falsely resolute lost soul who feels that his position in 10th-century Britain is insufficiently respected. Being handed a sword by an officious woman who lives underwater is a questionable anointment even in a credulous age. He is at most every other inch a king,  which is not enough to understand the nature of the forces opposing  him, from a brusque Almighty to contemptuous French taunters. A certain amount of dithering comes with the job. In that respect, he's like most leaders.

Arthur is also inclined to take for granted his sidekick Patsy, played by the indomitable Paul Hansen, who blossoms in the hummable, whistle-able "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," repurposed from the crucifixion scene in "Life of Brian." Early on, a pre-enlistment argument between Robin (Ben Asaykwee) and Lancelot (Thomas Cardwell) — about the provenance of the coconut shells Patsy uses to simulate the clip-clop of royal horses — shows Idle's debt to the Theatre of the Absurd. It recalls the first-act debate about pachyderms in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."

There are a few other show-stopping turns to take note of: Claire Wilcher's Lady of the Lake, floating against a clamshell backdrop like Botticelli's Venus, describes her role in establishing Arthur's credentials in the first act. That's  shortly after she joins reformed revolutionary Dennis, now Sir Lancelot (Pete Scharbrough), in the belted complaint, "The Song That Goes Like This."  Wilcher returns as an aggrieved diva in the second act, protesting her long absence from the stage.  Opening her mouth as wide as Martha Raye's, she made a stunning show of indignation.

Most amazing as a concentrated exhibition of BOBIDIREX's  strengths was "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," with a smoothly structured blend of Broadway and ethnic pizazz. Asaykwee was in firm command of the solo. singing with clarity one of Idle's cleverest songs and leading the riotously busy ensemble of singers and dancers.

If at its extreme end the ridiculous joins  the sublime, this Monty Python's Spamalot meets itself coming and going. It's a Moebius strip of hilarity, beyond cavil or compromise, as nose-thumbing toward high purpose as it is bum-baring toward low motives.