This is APT at its most goofy, campy and playful.
Over years of theatergoing, I've seen some bad shows. But nothing, I fear, compares to the ludicrous, out-of-control spectacle I witnessed Saturday night at American Players Theatre in Spring Green. Just thinking about it this morning, the mind reels. Did I really see that?
Let me clarify: I'm talking about The Spanish Armada, the play-within-a-play in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1779 satire The Critic -- and it's supposed to be terrible. Sheridan's play is an over-the-top spoof of the theater world and its many inhabitants: benefactors whose enthusiasm surpasses their judgment, writers lacking originality or common sense, two-faced critics, even audiences who don't think for themselves.
At the time it was written, The Critic directly lampooned, through one of its major roles, a contemporary of Sheridan. While modern audiences may not grasp details specific to London in the late 1700s, they don't need to. Though over 200 years old, The Critic has a pop-culture heart that keeps its brand of humor feeling surprisingly contemporary.
William Brown, a regular presence at APT, directs this production with a gonzo, more-is-more spirit. And it's a big show: with a cast of roughly two dozen, many of whom are double-cast, this is the kind of undertaking that, among area theaters, only APT could pull off. The Critic is rarely performed, and this complexity is no doubt one of the reasons why.
The first half of the show takes place at the home of theater benefactor Mr. Dangle (Darragh Kennan), and the second half is devoted to what is said to be the final dress rehearsal of The Spanish Armada, a new tragedy by Puff (Jim DeVita), who sells his artistic creation like a desperate used-car salesman.
Brown is unafraid to puncture the period setting with contemporary bits. A funny opening speech takes the place of the usual recorded "turn of your cell phone" reminder, and, as a wigged and brocade-coated Jonathan Smoots reminds us in verse of these quotidian things, an accompanist on harpsichord plays a familiar ringtone.
Later, as a shoddy playwright (aptly named Sir Fretful Plagiary, played by La Shawn Banks) doodles on the keyboard, a few lines of Billy Joel come out. Those sillier moments of comedy are balanced by the trenchant barbs in Sheridan's script.
The opportunities for comedy are plentiful here, and it's fun to see both veteran APT actors and newer faces (including members of this year's apprentice company) given a chance to shine. Fans of Monty Python, The Princess Bride and even Spinal Tap will recognize a comic ancestor in Sheridan's satire.
With such a huge ensemble cast, it's hard to single out performances, but Sarah Day excels in two relatively small roles: first, as one of a trio of bizarre Italian sisters who sing a ditty that is really nothing but food words (Pepperoni! Formaggio!), and second as the confidante to a fine lady (played by the equally hilarious Tracy Michelle Arnold). The childlike confidante dementedly mimics everything her lady does; it's almost too weird to describe, but very funny.
Rachel Anne Healy's creative costume designs add another layer to the humor; the burlesque outfits of the Spanish fleet and English fleet (during the onstage sea battle, natch) are the evening's outrageous capper.
This is APT at its most goofy, campy and playful, and would surely be a surprise to anyone who thinks period plays must be stuffy and dry. There are some trouble spots -- the second half feels a bit long, and sometimes the lunacy threatens to collapse under its own weight -- but, overall, I was glad to have a chance to see this seldom-performed play. William Brown is just the right person to direct it, so well does his irreverent vision mesh with Sheridan's own.