One of the reasons satirists sometimes make sure their efforts are described as “parodies” is because the First Amendment allows parodies to proceed without requiring the satirists to obtain rights to the source material that’s being parodied. Yet just to be safe, the makers of parodies sometimes take extra precautions.
And so, at Sacred Fools Theater, as the absolutely fascinating Absolutely Filthy takes characters clearly based on the Peanuts gang into adulthood, the names in the program disguise those origins. Still, the characters themselves call each other with their Peanuts names. There’ll be more on Absolutely Filthy later in the column.
Instead of parodying any particular story, Von Bach playwright Owen Hammer has created an original character who’s reminiscent of the central figures in the Frankenstein/ Dracula/Re-Animator tradition. He has probably eliminated any danger of being sued. But Hammer doesn’t leave it at that.
Von Bach ingeniously and hilariously parodies not only the man-becoming-monster storytelling tradition but also the arena in which people sue each other over the rights to tell stories. At times the action in Von Bach flashes back to the title character’s experiments in the 19th century, but the main frame of the play is actually set in our own era, and in our own city.
A screenwriter (Maia Peters), who’s besotted with the original Von Bach novel, is hired to write the latest film version of the Von Bach legend. But first the production is sued by the grandson (David Wilcox) of the most famous actor ever to play the role and then by Von Bach (JR Reed) himself, the re-animated version of the original, miraculously transported into 21st-century LA.
Whose life is it, anyway?
The Next Arena’s production of Von Bach is enhanced by a series of original film clips and trailers that are supposedly from at least a half-dozen previous screen versions of the story, plus fabricated footage of a TMZ-style celebrity news show and commercials for a drug that Von Bach begins hawking (after all, he has to make a living, especially if he doesn’t control the rights to his own story).
If this sounds complicated, the plot becomes even more tangled as the show goes on, but director Scott Rognlien of the Next Arena keeps everything remarkably coherent, and the jokes hit most of their intended targets.
Von Bach has been in the works for quite a while, with an earlier production in 2010 at Artworks Theatre in Hollywood that didn’t get much attention (I don’t remember hearing anything about it back then), although it received an encouraging review in the LA Weekly. However, the current production has been developed even farther, including a series of posters from the various Von Bach films mounted in the Fremont lobby.
Although the clips on the screen at the back of the stage add to the panache of the production, the live performances are hardly neglected, with tart and well-timed contributions not only from the principals mentioned above but also from Summer Herrick Stevens as the flip movie producer, Matt Taylor as the antic director, Jonathan Howard as the cgi performer and as a judge, and Lori Ann Edwards in a variety of women’s roles.
I don’t consider myself a devotee of the man-into-monster genre, but my brain buzzed with delight as I left Von Bach.
Also this weekend, I finally saw another production that treats the subject of re-animation — How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s Patrick Bristow’s Americanized version of a British script written and created by Ben Muir, Jess Napthine, David Ash, Lee Cooper and After Dark Entertainment. That long list of creators is a clue to the improvisational nature of the production.
The audience has purportedly assembled for a seminar on the subject in the title. It’s led by Bristow with Jayne Entwistle, Mario Vernazza and Chris Sheets playing his assistants, who often lead the proceedings into unexpected detours.
Former Groundling Bristow is a master at the sort of audience interaction that keeps the show lightly humming for about 75 minutes, but it’s a mere shadow of the many layers on view in Von Bach.
At one moment in Von Bach, we see not only snippets from the film adaptations of the tale but also a brief glimpse of a stage musical treatment of the Von Bach story, which looks suspiciously like Phantom of the Opera. This reminded me of the latest incarnation of a similar tale, Jekyll & Hyde, which is now at the Pantages.
Like most critics, I’m not a fan of the Frank Wildhorn/Leslie Bricusse score, but Jeff Calhoun’s staging — which originated at La Mirada Theatre last year — is a big improvement over the previous versions I’ve seen. Calhoun and his team have tried to trim fat from the score and have come up with some relatively clever designs.
The climactic scene in which Jekyll and Hyde (the characters) more or less sing a psychological duel always struck me as fairly ridiculous when it involved only one actor switching back and forth between his two personalities, but in this version the actor (Constantine Maroulis) is allowed to stay in character as Jekyll while projections and other effects impersonate Hyde in that scene. It’s still kitsch, but not on the level that I remember from previous productions,
Von Bach, Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm, Closes March 10. www.FremontCentreTheatre.com. 866-811-4111.
How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, Theater Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Feb 24. http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/288789. 800-838-3006.
Jekyll & Hyde, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Closes March 3. www.BroadwayLA.org. 800-982-2787.
Meanwhile, in Absolutely Filthy at Sacred Fools, most of the adult Peanuts characters re-unite for the funeral of Charlie Brown. But one of them is conspicuously left out, at least at first — “Pig-Pen”, the character who was always surrounded by a cloud of dust. He’s the central character in Absolutely Filthy — hence the title — and playwright Brendan Hunt plays him in a performance that is probably unlike any you’ve ever seen.
Unless, that is, you’ve seen an actor hula-hooping his way through nearly an entire play, sometimes while naked.
Yes, Hunt depicts “Pig-Pen”’s cloud of dust by constantly spinning a grungy-looking hula hoop around his waist. And he keeps it spinning even during the part of the play when he takes off all his clothes. That disrobing is inspired by his feeling that if his childhood friends don’t want to be seen with him because he isn’t dressed appropriately for a funeral, why not take off his clothes?
“Pig-Pen”, you see, has never overcome his childhood stigma and is now homeless and dirtier than ever. His lot in life has been in stark contrast to those of most of his friends. Lucy (Anna Douglas), the girl who always pulled the football away from Charlie Brown (Scott Golden, in flashbacks) when he was trying to kick it, is a cutthroat TV sports interviewer. Her brother Linus (Robbie Winston) failed to complete a tour of duty in Iraq and remains a sensitive soul in the shadow of his sister.
Charlie’s sister Sally (Shannon Nelson) was the one true love of “Pig-Pen”’s life — they hooked up while in college, but he ruined that relationship with a casual fling with Patty, who’s now a fashion designer in France. Patty’s former friend Marcie (Jaime Andrews) is a glasses-free ocular surgeon after a traumatic incident. “The black guy” Franklin (KJ Middlebrooks) is a judge and a recovering alcoholic who gives “Pig-Pen” a hand. Schroeder (Curt Bonnem) transformed from a Beethoven devotee into a shallow pop star.
Snoopy (Jessica Sherman) died long ago, but he returns as a German-speaking female dog in a hallucination inside “Pig-Pen”’s head. Another hallucination, befitting the theological inquiries of Peanuts, brings a somewhat irreverent Jesus Christ (Amir Levi) into Pigpen’s brain. Several adult versions of characters from other comic strips make brief appearances.
Of course if you didn’t grow up reading Peanuts or the other comics of that era, most of this might sound meaningless. As a Peanuts fan since childhood, I was caught up in all of it from beginning to end.
At one point in the play, a few of the characters refer to their younger selves as cartoons, as parodies, but Peanuts — although measured out in its little daily doses — was always deeper than mere parody. The children in the comic strip were already more sophisticated than most actual children — little adults. By dreaming up the later lives of these characters, Hunt honors that level of depth. At the same time, by making “Pig-Pen” his central character and embodying him so creatively and convincingly, Hunt challenges us to go beyond the point of view that Charles Schulz created in the original comic strip and consider a wider range of possibilities.
This is one of the best Sacred Fools shows ever — and a play that truly seems appropriate for a company called Sacred Fools. Jeremy Aldridge, the director, also staged the production that until now has been the company’s biggest success — Louie and Keely Live at the Sahara. Absolutely Filthy, although very different, achieves the same level of unexpected epiphanies.
Absolutely Filthy, Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Thur Mar 7 8 pm, Sun Mar 3 and 10, 7 pm. Closes Mar 10. www.sacredfools.org. 310-281-8337.
With such enterprising and entertaining full-length productions in the parody genre as Von Bach, Absolutely Filthy and the musical Triassic Parq (closing next Sunday at the Chance Theater in Anaheim), Sketches From the National Lampoon at the Hayworth Theatre looks, by comparison, somewhat old-fashioned and pallid. In fact, most of the short sketches are from the National Lampoon archives, albeit freshened a bit with a few updated references.
The cast is sharp enough, including veterans from Sacred Fools and the Troubies. But I didn’t laugh as much at the National Lampoon show as I have, for example, at most of the Friday/Saturday night Groundlings shows I’ve seen. Not that I’ve experienced a Groundlings show recently, but I’ve seen them many times over the years, and they have always struck me as a consistent purveyor of high-quality live sketch comedy. National Lampoon’s show wasn’t even as funny as last week’s Saturday Night Live.
Sketches From the National Lampoon, Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 and 7 pm. Closes March 17. www.nationallampoon.com. 323-337-1546.