The Gods Must Be Crazy

There are plenty of companies that I follow because I feel I should keep informed about what they’re doing for one reason or another, and there are other companies that may be a little more under the radar of some of my colleagues but that I follow simply because I enjoy what they do.

Neil Higgins and Kirsten Broadbear in Salty Towers (preview shot, not final costumes or final roles). Photo courtesy of Thunderbird.

One of the latter type is Thunderbird Theatre Company, which makes a specialty of madcap original comedies drenched in pop culture, whether it’s a Jane Austen vampire romp or a Magnificent Seven takeoff with Mexican wrestlers and evil Quakers. I’ve found some of the company’s work hilarious, such as Peter Finch’s 2007 Citizen Kane prequel Aaah! Rosebud! and Jason Harding’s 2010 Conan pastiche Agnes the Barbarian. Inevitably there have been some other shows that I haven’t found to be up to snuff, like Finch’s 2009 Aaron Trotter and the Incident at Bikini Beach. But I keep checking out its shows from time to time because generally speaking its sense of humor is right up my alley.

Take its current show at the Exit Theatre, Salty Towers. It’s basically an episode of the 1970s John Cleese sitcom Fawlty Towers, only with Poseidon and Medusa as the harried hotelkeepers.  What’s not to like about that?

Short answer: the script. Written by Dana C Constance, Bryce Allemann and Kathy Hicks, it’s full of leaden gags that just fall flat. An opening with a masked Greek chorus (Finch, Sara Briendal and Neil Higgins) looks promising at first, but it has no real payoff—or rather an unfunny one in which Zeus does away with the tradition of the chorus.

The idea is that Zeus is looking for a site for the very first Olympic Games, and has settled on either Athens or sunken Atlantis, where his brother Poseidon maintains the shoddy Shining Sea hotel. So the gods descend there, ostensibly to scout out the location, but they don’t really do any inspection so much as various sexcapades, some of which aren’t outrageous so much as crass and distasteful.

Directed by Christopher Kelly, the production does have some enjoyable performances. The cast does credible impersonations of the Fawlty Towers originals, although in the always flustered role of Poseidon-as-Basil-Fawlty Stephen Vaught runs afoul of the problem that as funny as John Cleese is, it’s hard to do a funny Cleese imitation. Kirsten Broadbear does an amusing Prunella Scales impression as Medea (in the place of Sybil, Basil’s wife and the hotel’s co-manager), even if most of it relies on the all-purpose catchphrase “Hiss.” Analisa Svehaug is particularly charming as Dolly, the dolphin version of Connie Booth’s levelheaded all-purpose hotel worker Polly, and her dolphin cry is priceless.

Manuel, Fawlty’s Spanish waiter, here becomes Man-O, a Portuguese man o’ war (which looks like a jellyfish but isn’t one), with John Larkin somewhere under that suit. Gilbert Esqueda tackles various undersea puppet roles—octopus, crab, school of fish, whatever—with considerable zest. Finch plays an exaggerated sloppy drunk as Fillet-O-Fish, who fills the role of the senile old major on the TV show, and Jason Pienkowski does a broad-as-a-barn version of an old movie gangster as the thieving Prometheus.

As for the godly guests, Shay Casey’s resonant voice and swagger serves him well as the smug and always horny Zeus. Dana Goldberg’s haughty Athena doesn’t get to do much more than sneer and snipe at Poseidon, confident than her own Athens will host the games. Higgins is amusingly snooty as Hermes, who’s arranged a weekend away with a giggling Hestia (Briendal, who also designed most of the amusing costumes), and Brandon Wiley is oddly charismatic as the zoned-out, free-loving hippie Dionysus.

There are a few cute ideas, such as a school of fish coming to worship the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” singing Billy Bass novelty fish mounted on the wall, but the follow-through on them is just perplexing, with limp slapstick and a hamhanded dream sequence. I’m sure I’ll be back to check out some other show that looks promising in the future, but Salty is faulty at its core.

Salty Towers
Through July 23
Exit Theatre
156 Eddy St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #67 of 2011, attended July 10.

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