Bright side of theater
Chico Theater Company does justice to Python musical
Full disclosure: When the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail came out in 1975, I went to it three nights in a row, dragging different friends along each time to see “the greatest movie ever.” In the decades since, I’ve watched it many, many more times, and I’d still be hard pressed to name a movie I enjoy more or consider “better.” So I was both very happy and a bit skeptical about going to see Spamalot, the English comedy troupe’s musical theater adaptation of their satirical retelling of the King Arthur legend presented as a community theater production.
My skepticism evaporated quickly on Saturday night (Sept. 30) after a video screen dropped from the ceiling above the stage at Chico Theater Company and the Python’s classic “Spam” skit played in its hilariously absurdist entirety before the bookish, balding and shaggy-haired Historian (Mike Manly) took the stage to give the audience a bit of background regarding the origins of the play and its source material. In trademark Python nonsequitur manner, following his introduction, the whole troupe—dressed in traditional Finnish costumes—presented “Fisch Schlapping Song,” complete with choreographed mackerel pummeling, before King Arthur (Matt Taylor) and his faithful, coconut-shell-clacking servant, Patsy (John Davis), cantered onto the stage to begin the story proper.
Based on the anticipatory laughter and occasional recitations in unison, a vast majority of the sold-out crowd already knew many of the show’s highlight moments by heart. But even the nearby viewers whom I overheard discussing their unfamiliarity with the show guffawed at such classic lines as the peasant Dennis’ (played by Louis Fuentes) assertions that, “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
But the show does more than satirize the dialectics and delusions of history, politics and religion. It also satirizes the conventions of musical theater, most blatantly in the character and songs of the Lady of the Lake (Christi Harrington), a diva whose signature “The Song That Goes Like This” catalogs the most stereotypical aspects of show tunes that, “Once in every show/There comes a song like this/It starts off soft and low/And ends up with a kiss.” Harrington presents her character’s persona with a blend of thwarted assertiveness, romantic sentimentality and artistic frustration—with a bit of Betty Boopish girlishness added for comic effect.
All of the greatest hits/skits of The Holy Grail are included as the episodic action unfolds (literally, due to Brent and Renee Boyd’s cleverly designed and-painted folding set). The taunting Frenchman (Nick Reiner) hurls his innovative insults (and a cow) from the castle wall; the leader of the Knights Who Say Ni (Jarrod Jackson) intimidates Arthur into bringing him a shrubbery; The Black Knight (Brent Boyd) battles Arthur to a limbless (and in this case bloodless) finale; and the killer white rabbit—“the most foul, cruel and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!”—is dispatched with the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.
What sets the show apart from being a simple transposition of the story from movie to stage are the song and dance productions that tie the narrative pieces together. The 25-person cast, director/choreographer Joey Mahoney, and a six-member wardrobe team have collaborated on what is obviously a labor of love and laughter. A great night of theater celebrating the irreverent but benign humor of Eric Idle’s script and, as the standing-ovation-evoking grand finale of a song says, “the bright side of life.”