Saturday, December 11, 2010

THEATER: The Land Whale Murders

If Mad Magazine collided with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the result would be something like Jonathan A. Goldberg's The Land Whale Murders. With one foot in Nielsen-like parody and the other in sincere homage to old adventure serials, Goldberg's play is a sublimely shallow affair, snappily directed by Tom Ridgely (who is doing his best impersonation of Sherlock Holmes's Guy Ritchie). It's highly entertaining, but precariously so, especially if you don't find the idea of Teddy Roosevelt (Rich Hollman) dressing up as a superhero named The Big Stick to be funny. (Their last collaboration, The Luck of the IBIS, had more meat to it, but let's be honest: who doesn't find a super-heroic, super-egotistical T.R. hilarious? "Bully!")

The play opens by introducing a fellowship of scientists who identify themselves as The Four Elementals: serious Hiram Blud (Robert Michael McClure), a watery whale-enthusiast; his sister Maryanne (Jennifer Joan Thompson), a fiery poetess; his one-time love, Angus Troup (Amy Landon), who has been disfigured by her earthy love of plants; and Eugene Neddly (Carl Howell), an bird-brain who unrequitedly loves Maryanne every bit as much as he is foolish, foppish, and wealthy. But in an act of ichthyterrorism, Hiram is stabbed to death by a swordfish, and it's up to our surviving heroes to find the culprit: could it be whale oil magnate Henry B. Lubbins III (Nathaniel Kent), or is it perhaps the masked Pirate Penny and her Blowhole Gang? Say what you will: this fishy plot, which involves the abduction of a fifty-six-foot whale, comes up with some rather good, rather literal, red herrings, and Goldberg is clever enough to trawl the depths for every last laugh. (If anything, he floods the show with too much: jokes with little relevance -- like a window-repairman's jingle -- go on far past the point of humor, Family Guy-style.)

That The Land Whale Murders remains so ship-shape is a credit to Ridgely and his crew; Jason Simms's simple hand-painted curtains set the tone and Deanna R. Frieman's sleek and sexy 1896-ish costumes then enhance it, clearly defining the play as good-natured fantasy. In fact, M. L. Dogg's sound design goes so far as to borrow music from films (in addition to some nice squishy, squid-y effects), a clear reminder that the play is meant to operate on the pop-cultural level that's all the rage these days. Of course, without a steady cast aboard the vehicle, the thing would sail around in circles, so it's nice to so easily praise them, particularly Kent, who attacks the stereotypical accents of his three characters with exceptional gusto, and Howell, who succeeds in making Neddly more than just a fool -- without spoiling any of the jokes that rely so heavily on him being just that.

The Shelby Company is quickly making a name for itself with its professional, comic, and original material. So far as plays go, The Land Whale Murders is a bit fatty, but like fatty tuna, it's delicious nonetheless. Or as Goldberg puts it: "Ambergris That Ends Well."

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