Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mad As A Brush By Beverly Creasey

It exploded with Monty Python. Americans have been enamored of BBC comedy imports ever since. Public Television in the U.S. has long dined on the revenue from imports like Upstairs Downstairs, Fawlty Towers and (Lord help us) Are You Being Served?

BLACKADDER fans, rejoice! Theatre On Fire is celebrating the series’ 25th anniversary with the first ever live production of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s wacky adventures on this side of the pond, voted (by the Brits) “second best British comedy of all time.” Strange as it may seem, I’ve never experienced the television show so I’m reviewing the stage version without benefit of prior adoration. (The theater was packed on opening night with droves of admirers who knew every turn of plot and every gloriously lame joke.)

BLACKADDER II (playing in two parts at the Charlestown Working Theatre through April 23rd) stars Craig Houk, one of Boston’s best comic actors, of late having slain Zeitgeist audiences with his furious napping. In TOF’s BLACKADDER II (i.e. BBC Season Two) he takes over Rowan Atkinson’s reins, galloping full tilt into the dubious fray.(I might add that Houk cuts quite a dashing figure as the sardonic knight, giving him the distinct advantage over Atkinson.)

My theater companion knows the BBC series intimately and testifies that the stage version is rendered word for word, characterization for characterization … with one exception: Crystal Lisbon’s Queen Elizabeth, he says, is better than the original. I must say, I ate up her every baffling utterance, delivered with just the right amount of aristocratic vacuity.

The BLACKADDER episodes (three to an evening in two evenings) are very, very silly, skewed in that naughty British way…You know, you cringe at the joke about scrofula, but you can’t help being amused. Bad taste is king. (You’ll know what I mean when you see the Sir Walter Raleigh episode. You’ll need a stiff upper lip for that one.)

If Shakespeare is your cuppa tea, Shakespeare this isn’t. Funny it is. At times it’s darn good social satire but mostly it’s just shameless. Over a dozen actors portray the denizens of Queen Elizabeth the First’s realm in a sort of low and I do mean lowbrow Nicholas Nickleby. Darren Evans is the mad genius behind the scenes, finding playing space where none existed in the small Charlestown firehouse theater and nimbly directing the impossibly madcap action (Wait ‘til you see Jason Beals’ spectacular entrance as Flashheart!)

Michael Steven Costello is marvelously droll as the cunning Lord Melchett (Do not miss his bio, either!), always scheming to foil Blackadder’s plans. Nadia de Lemeny is hilarious as a grieving, chest-heaving, (not fully aware that she’s a) widow and Wayne Fritsche scores as Blackadder’s often maligned and more often misled sidekick, Lord Percy. Chris Wagner is sensational as the dimwitted Baldrick and a cast of thousands (actually fourteen) play everyone else: from Gerry Slattery’s creepy Dr.Leech to Ann Carpenter’s crazed Wisewoman. I’ll report on the rest of the cast once I’ve seen the other evening. Suffice it to say I can’t wait.