Tartan It Up

19. October, 2012 Theater No comments

Thunderbird Theatre Company specializes in ridiculous comedies, whether it’s a Citizen Kane prequel with a demonically possessed sled, a coming-of-age story about Conan the Barbarian’s daughter, a beach party take on Harry Potter, a Fawlty Towers spoof populated by Greek gods, or a Jane Austen undead scuffle way before those were cool. Thunderbird’s latest, The Scotland Company, is certainly as silly as usual, but what makes it unique among the company’s offerings is that it was written by a 16-year-old, Jake Rosenberg.

Xanadu Bruggers in The Scotland Company. Photo by Bill Schroeder.

The premise is that the rich history and culture of Scotland is an elaborate hoax, invented practically overnight as a grand project to impress Queen Victoria for her diamond jubilee. In a rough and rudimentary office set by Norm deVeyra, Lou Huang and Jessica Woodard of Human Fiction, a young official with a long government title is tasked with coming up with something to dazzle the queen on a tight deadline, despite appearing to have never had an idea in his life. With a white cravat, he’s what Andrew Jackson might call a “doily-wearing motherfucker.”

This is Henry Scot; everyone in the play seems to have very long names as some sort of mild running gag, but that’s the short version. At least initially, he seems like a young Scrooge, inquiring about an employee whose mother is dying, “Well, can’t she die any faster?” But as played by Austin Madison, he’s not so much malicious as thoughtless, stuffy and harrumphing, a guy with no capacity to think things through. He assembles his team not because they’re the least bit qualified but because they happen to come through the door and say he should hire them.

Xanadu Bruggers is thoroughly charming as his hopelessly devoted, preternaturally efficient secretary Pennycandy, who has to do all the heavy lifting, from writing the books of Adam Smith to filling the lochs with buckets. She’s clearly in love with Henry, but while other characters are always drooling all over her, he hardly notices that she exists.

Henry’s gang that can’t think straight consists of Muldoon, a blustery Great White Hunter type in a pith helmet who claims to be a professor but appears to have no education, played with booming bluster by Jason Topolski. “Test my knowledge, and you’ll find that I’m as sharp as… a very sharp thing,” he boasts. Max Bernstein dons a thick Italian accent as Fratelli, a hapless buffoon who claims to be “the world’s greatest actoré.”

Pitted sorta-kinda-but-not-really against them is the French ambassador and his staff, who are really only angling for an invitation to the jubilee that they’re routinely denied because they’re too smelly and smoke too much. (No one ever said this was a deep social critique.) Neil Higgins’s sneering Petitcointeau is am amusingly haughty dandy with a drawn-un mustache, with Michael Symonds’s “French Fratelli” as his endearingly clumsy henchman and Kat Bushnell’s unflappably blasé secretary Pouvrechocolade smoking an ever-increasing number of cigarettes at once. The French are distinguished by their omnipresent cigarettes and berets, of course, as well as by a tendency to panic and surrender every time someone knocks on the door.

Rik Lopes is blandly if appropriately stoic as the Queen, reciting letters through her portrait, but he’s impishly animated as Muldoon’s overdramatic, high-maintenance wife, constantly throwing tantrums while glancing to see if he’s watching. (Shrewish as she may be, Muldoon’s old-fashioned wife-avoiding shtick is more off-putting.) Lopes, Symonds and Karen Offereins bring things to a fever pitch as a trio of screaming lunatics who come to reclaim one of their own, and Offereins and Symonds are also amusing as a many-headed menagerie of international dignitaries.

The clever idea is that no one really knows or cares what goes on in “the vast wasteland that is the north of England,” so Henry and pals will just make up a whole country with a rich culture and history and say they conquered it, and they have to create it in 10 days—or less, really, because the date for the celebration keeps getting pushed up. Not a whole lot is done with that premise, but it’s a fun idea.

In an antic staging by Kai Morrison, it makes for a diverting couple of hours, but ultimately the farce is a trifle limp and underdeveloped, with some jokes swallowed because they’re dashed off too fast. It’s a very broad, zany romp, with a little bit of strikingly effective stage combat captained by Bruggers. Sound designer Christine McClintock plays “Sing Sing Sing” whenever there’s a chase scene or other string of slapstick.

There are several running gags that aren’t at all clear that they are running gags until someone explains them. The most confusing of these is the idea that Fratelli’s accent changes every time someone slaps him. It only seems like he has a wildly inconsistent accent because he’s a generally loony guy until someone actually says outright near the end of the play that that’s how it works.

The same problem, to a lesser extent, occurs with a wacky mistaken-identity shtick, with the members of the French group confused for their English counterparts as if they’re identical when in fact they look nothing alike. It can be explained away if you say no one pays any attention to Pennycandy anyway, but when you have characters actually named “French Fratelli” and “French Muldoon” you’d think at least some vague similarity in looks or personality would be intended. As it stands, the two groups are parallel only in numbers. There’s also a plot twist lifted outright from The Importance of Being Earnest for no discernible reason, but it’s always nice to see it. The play often feels as hastily slapped together as the Scotland it posits, but like that fabled and apparently fictional land, the real question is whether it pleases. Are we amused? Be it ever so mildly, sure we are.

The Scotland Company
Through October 27
Thunderbird Theatre Company
The EXIT Theatre
156 Eddy Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #93 of 2012, attended October 14.



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