Michael Van Duzer

Michael Van Duzer

Michael is an award-winning playwright and director. For over 25 years he has reviewed opera productions around the country for a variety of print and online outlets. During the past year he has added theater to his reviewing duties.

From Haunted House Party to Little Drummer Bowie: The Makings of a Troubie Show

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by MICHAEL VAN DUZER

[dropcap]The[/dropcap] approach of the holiday season brings the inevitable surrender of our local stages to the likes of Scrooge, Santa, the Grinch, George Bailey and those irrepressible elves, Buddy and Crumpet. It also means a Yuletide contribution from LA’s own Troubadour Theater Company (The Troubies).

Little Drummer Bowie uses the music of David Bowie to rejuvenate the cheesy animated TV show from the 60s. Replacing the Vienna Choir Boys with glam rock songs, the show acts as both a tribute to the late rock idol, and a send-up of the heartwarming Christmas specials we all grew up watching.

This juxtaposition of music and melodrama is already bringing an anticipatory smile to the faces of longtime Troubiephiles, while the uninitiated might be scratching their heads in bewilderment. An in-depth look at the Troubies’ last production, Haunted House Party, offers both groups a better understanding of the company’s process and an appreciation for how seriously they take their comedy.

Making a Troubie Show

It’s a glorious and tranquil September evening at the Getty Villa. The kind that reminds why you live in Southern California. A refreshing ocean breeze eases the memory of your long crawl from the Valley in a four-wheeled furnace. The unexpected stillness of Malibu, and the graceful terraces of the Villa itself melt your cares and encourage you to smile at your fellow playgoers. As you slip onto your bench in the open-air amphitheater, you notice a nearly full moon rising lazily above the Villa. Pure enchantment.

Suddenly, shouts pierce the air. Laughter. A colorful troupe of players in crazy-quilt togas explode onto the playing space. Raucous, anarchic, and irresistible, they instantly galvanize the audience and bring the energy reading up to an indisputable 11. Some juggle, some balance on balls, some do both at the same time. Others are moving into the house, raising your no-audience-participation-EVER alarms.

The Troubies have hijacked the Getty’s Outdoor Classical Theater and replaced the customary Greek Tragedies and Greek Tragedy adaptations with Haunted House Party, the company’s loose adaptation of Mostellaria, by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus.

Outside of Classical scholars, the general public is not likely to know Plautus as a prolific playwright who wrote well over a hundred plays — twenty of which survive. Some might vaguely remember a literature class in which they learned that Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors was based on Plautus’ play, Menaechmi. Others might know that the scheming slaves, buxom courtesans, and mare’s sweat in Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum were also inspired by Plautus. But even the most rabid theatergoer is unlikely to have seen many productions of the original plays.

This inequity feels like something the Troubies were born to correct. After all, their highly physical and improvisational style of performance is heavily influenced by commedia, which can trace its use of stock characters back to Plautus. Apparently, the Getty agreed, and they approached the company with the idea, suggesting several Plautus plays for consideration. They agreed on Mostellaria because of its preposterous plot and outsized characters felt accessible and familiar.

“Troubie scripts are always shape-shifting,
even through closing and beyond.”
– Beth Kennedy, Actor

Matt Walker, Founder and Artistic Director of the Troubies, says he was honored to be asked, and enthusiastic about the encouragement and developmental opportunities offered by the Getty. Not only was the process carefully nurtured through three weeklong workshops over fourteen months, but they had a private museum tour specially designed to highlight the connection between artifacts and the artists who used them. They even had their own scholars on call.

Walker explains how access to Dr. Amy Richlin and Dr. Shelby Brown was key to understanding the original context of the play and its society. “It made things more in-depth for us than per usual. Which was necessary for this project due to the unfamiliarity with the source material. Hamlet was hit-the-ground-running. Plautus was, “Who’s Plautus?”

They also discovered surprising connections with the troupes of players who originally performed Roman plays in this period — details Walker and the company were able to incorporate while creating the production. Walker is adamant that, “It really benefits the performers to have the contextual knowledge, and gave us a strong sense that we are very similar to the acting troupes that existed in 200 BC. Only better looking.”

If all this scholarship sounds a bit highfalutin for a group of comic performers, it’s best to remember that Comedy is serious business. A concept Walker deeply appreciates after over twenty years in developing the company’s aesthetic.

The first job in transforming Mostellaria into Haunted House Party, was to give the play the Troubie treatment. Plautus’ slender plot concerns Philolaches (Nicholas Cutro), a rich and feckless young man who celebrates his father’s business travels by throwing an ongoing three-year party in his house. When the father, Theopropides (Michael Faulkner), unexpectedly returns, the son is desperate to keep him from entering the house and discovering what he’s been up to. Frantic, he turns to his canny slave, Tranio (Matt Walker), for guidance. Tranio concocts a plan to broadcast that the house is haunted.

The play provides the perfect background for a Troubie show. It has the advantage of being ancient and well into the public domain, and yet, it sounds as current as the latest Zac Efron frat comedy.

As the Troubies famously use popular music in their shows, the first job is to distill the show down to its essence. At least half the storytelling, and 75% of the attitude, comes from a careful use of popular songs.

Because of the music’s importance, the company generally reverse-engineers its productions based on the title. Both the Troubies and their audience know what to expect from Fleetwood Macbeth, ABBAmemnon, and Little Drummer Bowie. In the case of Haunted House Party, they needed to find a clever tie-in to create the production’s musical playlist.

As Walker explains, “When choosing a show title that features a single artist or band, it’s a little easier to narrow the playlist based on the popularity of the song and how well it fits the story, character, tone, etc.… This show was darn near impossible because we had everything to choose from. Titling it Haunted House Party helped narrow the field somewhat — using songs one might hear at a house party: “Celebration,” “I Will Survive,” “Burning Down the House,” “Jenny,” etc.”

“Where other directors/troupes might spend hours of rehearsal tightening bits, if something isn’t funny after two or three tries, the question is always asked, ‘What’s
funnier?’”
– Michael Faulkner, Actor

They faced another challenge with the outdoor venue: no amplification allowed. (Apparently, that Malibu tranquility is actually mandated; nothing over 65 decibels is allowed in the neighborhood.) Musical Director Eric Heinly was tasked with finding a solution which would respect the neighbors while fulfilling audience expectation. But, as so often happens with a roadblock, creativity finds a way. The uniquely crafted, all-acoustic band for Haunted House Party includes harpsichord, accordion, cello, and mandolins. As a delighted Walker puts it, “With the framework of the plot and the songs tentatively in place, topical news and events are interpolated into the script.” (Not surprisingly, both the 2016 presidential election and the Broadway juggernaut Hamilton are satirized.) Then it is time to add the human element: the cast.

The ideal Troubie actor must be more than a triple threat. Walker looks for sextuple threats — a performer who can sing, dance, act, play an instrument, and clown. Someone who has passed that test, and proven her viability through 37 productions, is Beth Kennedy. Her experience with Troubie shows, as both actor and producer, has given her a unique insight into what makes the experience of creating a Troubie show unique.

“The manner in which we rehearse, I find very open and creatively challenging,” Kennedy explains. “Not that other processes are not, but often you will come to the rehearsal process to work on a tried and true script. Troubie scripts are always shape-shifting, even through closing and beyond. “

Michael Faulkner is a veteran actor, but a Troubie virgin. He also notes the company’s absolute trust in the cast’s creativity during rehearsal. “The main thing that is different is how open the Troubies are to each actor bringing in his/her unique gift sets… Whether it’s writing, musicianship, ad-libs… there is constant evolution during the rehearsal process. …Where other directors/troupes might spend hours of rehearsal tightening bits, if something isn’t funny after two or three tries, the question is always asked, ‘What’s funnier?’ There is constant creativity, and that doesn’t stop when rehearsal ends. We are still finding new things each night.”

“Constant creativity” doesn’t mean anarchy. Walker encourages the cast to joke around, improvise, suggest bits or songs, and generally try all ideas out, from the first reading through a point just before tech begins. A moment determined by instinct, not an unwavering timeline. “Comic timing, choreography, slapstick — these things need to be polished and tidy, so employing technique becomes paramount at a certain point,” Walker pointedly asserts. As director, he understands that a strong and trustworthy foundation allows the actors maximum flexibility and freedom during performance.

This method of creation, with its invigorating mix of freedom and structure, translates to a laugh-filled evening in the amphitheater. The glories of the moon forgotten, the crowd succumbs to the zany pranksters onstage and their go-for-broke attitude. The pratfalls, the buffoonish characters, the songs, the double-entendres, the cross-dressed heroine, the flubbed lines, the lazzi, the corpsing (real or designed) and the breakneck physical comedy all land, and the resulting roars of merriment seriously threaten the Malibu decibel code.

After so many years, and so many audiences, Kennedy has become a discerning laughter connoisseur. She has learned to appreciate them as complementary “score” for the play. One that varies from night to night. “You recognize immediately when there is a new laugh. And, in that moment, when the score changes and a new laugh shows up, from wherever you happen to be, your ears perk and you get very alert because you know something new is happening onstage and you want to know what it is. You want in on it. Was it a groan? A guffaw? Doesn’t really matter, what matters is someone is out there looking for the funny, hunting and digging for it, working it out, solving it, cracking it, tweaking it, knowing it will reveal itself if they keep at it. That’s Troubie. “

At the end of the night, when the complications have been solved, the lovers united and the final song is sung, the company folds up their set which magically turns into a wagon. The sort traveling players used for transportation and makeshift stages for centuries. Like their countless predecessors, the actors board the wagon and ride away into the night, leaving the gift of a light heart behind. That’s Troubie, too.


NOW PLAYING: LITTLE DRUMMER BOWIE at the Falcon Theatre, through January 15.

little-drummerThis holiday season, journey to a far away land where a new king is on the rise and a drummer with a dilemma is asking, “Is There Life On Mars?”