Friday, June 13, 2008

Jollyship the Whiz-Bang

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"The sea: vast, mysterious, wet," says Nick Jones, lead singer (and playwright) of Jollyship the Whiz-Bang. It's a statement of the obvious, one of the many deadpan remarks that make Jollyship a riot from start to finish. The play's subtitle is pretty dead-on, too: "A Pirate Puppet Rock Odyssey." If anything, that's an understatement, for while the band has pirate themed songs and one-liners ("By Neptune's green balls!"), and while it's true that most of these jokes are delivered by a green-skinned, white-haired, psychopath of a puppet ("I've been murdering people since you was a little baby! Since I was a little baby! I murder babies!"), "rock odyssey" hardly does justice to all the comedy crammed into rock songs like "Don't Mutiny (On Me)," the serious vocals on "Funny at the Time," the musical chops on a solo-filled showcase like "Roving," or the visual image of a Crab (or, Jumping Jack McGillihan the Deck Hand Man) soloing on a puppet Fendercaster. To the uninitiated, hurry up and set sail ("[trade] your boy-card for a man-certificate"); to the rest, here's another statement of the obvious: Jollyship hits you in the face with a cannonball . . . of fun!

The plot is as loosely structured as the crew's mission (to find "Party Island, where the drink is free and the girls are half-off on Tuesdays"), but while that sounds Adult Swim-like, the story uses this freedom to riff freely on alcoholism, platonic love, jealousy, and witchcraft, all while focusing on Captain Clamp's decent into madness ("I Killed the Cabin Boy"). The use of puppets also frees up the acting of the musicians, most of whom seem shy when playing human versions of themselves. Well, the play explains the power of dressed-up driftwood, so I suppose this just happens to be what floats this boat, Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and it damn well works. (It should be stressed that Nick Jones, who fronts the band, wrote the show, and plays both Clamp and Tom--more impressive when you consider how many scenes they have together--needs no help gallivanting across the stage, like a more mature Chris Kattan.)

It's as if Avenue Q's raunchy puppets met Tenacious D's utterly serious self-satire, with a healthy dose of Family Guy-style irreverence for good measure. Thankfully, Jollyship has grown organically over the years (the show is a culmination of Nick Jones and Raja Azar's fateful pairing back in 2002), so the comedy flows naturally, jarring only in the sense that you'll be convulsing with laughter. This also enables the group to constantly poke fun at itself: the pirate jokes ("Why don't you just replace one of my hands with a hook, then I can be a total cliche!"), referential humor ("No I can't, physically, open a box. My hands are too small."), and what seem to be ad-libbed additions to the script are never not funny.

Puppet musicals work, because the absurdity of each individual part only helps to fuel the other. Jollyship keeps that fire stoked with some clever pantomimes to support the chorus of the song, and the very intelligent casting of Steven Boyer and Julie Lake, two very talented "vocalists" who not only provide voices for critical puppets like Elford and Crab, but also help to backup the group numbers (credit also the Ars Nova staff, which has one of the nicest acoustical systems in the city). The show is also in the excellent hands of director Sam Gold, who has kept every element of the show--from the crucified mermaid on Donyale Werle's unfolding set to the obscure actions of Paul Burn's puppets (Elford's neck breathes, Crab's eyes twitch)--focused on the bountiful comedy just over the bend. It's not just the curvature of the Earth, folks: check out Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and you'll feel it, too.

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