by Michael Bowen
Epic Proportions signals that it's a parody right from the start. At the curtain, the music swells and a sonorous narrator intones, "In the beginning there was wasteland..." Lights come up on a backdrop suggesting miles of barren desert. Suddenly, we're plunged again into darkness, and the Orson Welles voice says, "But that was not very interesting to look at."
This madcap comedy by Larry Coen and David Crane (one of the creators of the Friends sitcom) is set in the scorching Arizona desert during the production of one of those rambling and overproduced 1930s biblical epics "with a cast of thousands." It's one of the funniest scripts the Civic has produced in years, and receives a reasonably good production under Maynard Villers' direction (on the Civic's Main Stage through Feb. 1).
It's an actor's script, stuffed with jokes about the mistakes actors and directors make when filming, for example, the parting of the Red Sea: "Before you came," says one assistant director to another, "we were going to part it on the side."
The ridiculous lives of the central love triangle -- two brothers, Benny and Phil, and the naive assistant director, Louise -- eventually parallel the ridiculous plot contrivances of the pseudo-Biblical farrago that D.W. DeWitt (Kim Berg) has them filming. (DeWitt's vast production rummages through all of Greek and Roman history -- and while he's at it, why not throw in most of the Old Testament, too?) Soon the central trio seems just as ridiculous as the movie they're stuck in, and the laughs pile up.
As Benny, the wannabe movie star, George Green excels at physical comedy and wrests nuance out of one-liners. He's yanked (literally) offstage; he gets beaten up by thugs; he's pretty sure at one point that he's about to be beheaded. Green (who is circulation and promotions manager at The Inlander) has a boyish quality onstage that audiences love. A naive underdog with a goofy grin, he's the Everyman in this show, bearing up under such adversities as competition in romance from his brother and the threat of no more kissy-face with Louise. Having gotten reactions for his blinking idiot routine, however, Green extends it too long -- well after he gets the big part in the movie along with the girl, he's still acting like a naif.
In addition, some of the pauses in the rapid-fire comic dialogue widen into gaps. When the script calls for the tentative gestures of nervous young lovers on starlit nights, the actors put plenty of air in the scenes -- but then keep inflating away, even during the screwball episodes, and the pacing suffers. The comic interchanges need instead to scoot like quicksilver.
As Louise, for example, Caryn Hoaglund takes her introductory speech to the assembled extras -- crucial as a tone-setter -- too slowly. But Hoaglund shines later on, especially in a farcical scene with one lover stuffed under the bed in her tent -- "my flap is always open," she tells us -- and during the love scenes between her princess Isis, who longs for her beloved Prince Ramadidis "as surely as the Nile overflows its banks ere the ibis sings its gentle song and the lotus blossom blooms."
In a book about laughter, written a century ago, Henri Bergson explained the basis of humor as people behaving like machines -- repetitively. Playwrights Larry Coen and David Crane take full advantage of Bergson's idea: since movie directors require multiple takes, let's use that to put some of the characters through agony, and then put them through it again (and again) with foreknowledge. Ensemble member Paul Villabrille, for example, gets laughs even before he ever opens his mouth as the stupidly grinning Roman senator Octavium, who then gets assassinated, Julius Caesar-style -- and then gets assassinated again. And again. Ouch.
Indeed, the four members of the ensemble -- charged with creating the illusion of an innumerable cast somewhere just beyond the proscenium -- all deserve kudos. Jone Campbell Bryan does a throaty imitation of an early-talkies-era Cleopatra, flowery while on camera and gutter-talking once the lights go out. Damon Mentzer differentiates among his seven characters expertly, and manages to characterize a grumpy assistant director with just minimal lines. Buddy Todd switches from pompous conspirator to overworked production assistant to flamboyantly gay extra. He's especially amusing as a not-so-fearsome gladiator who doesn't know how to describe his weapon: "With a... metal ball with, uh, spikes on it, I shall be victorious."
The physical comedy and the sword fights are exceptional, as you'd expect with Villers doubling as director and fight director. Some of the tussles made me feel like jumping onstage with the gladiators in their cute shiny tin helmets, blustering that "With this... pointy thing and this... other pointy thing, I shall be victorious."
In this screwball-yet-Epic swords-and-sandals production, the Civic's cast, for the most part, wins a comedic victory. Even with sand in their togas.