A Laughing Matter

Gaslight's 'Sheik' turns the Middle East into a comedy oasis

A powerful ruler has died, and the lack of an automatic succession protocol has resulted in a power vacuum, which a number of petty leaders are seeking to fill. Assassination, kidnapping and torture are a constant threat.

Which nation is currently experiencing such upheaval? Whatever it is, it's the place depicted onstage at the Gaslight Theatre, where the melodrama currently on tap is The Son of the Sheik, or Sheik Your Booty!

Written and directed by Peter Van Slyke (who has been with the Gaslight Theatre since 1978), Son of the Sheik is nearly miraculous in its ability to portray an imaginary crisis in the Middle East without once summoning a thought about the many real crises in the Middle East.

That'll be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Gaslight oeuvre. The camp melodrama has as much connection to the real world as hot fudge does to crude oil. One's much sweeter, and strictly for fun.

The plot is absurdly (but not unexpectedly) convoluted. The son of the sheik, dashing Khaliff Ali Ben Hassan, is seeking to claim the throne, as well as the hand of his beloved Princess Serena. His ambitions are complicated by the machinations of the power-hungry Wazir and the power-hungry and lustful Sheik Yerboutie. (Say the name out loud.)

The more I think about the details of the plot, the hazier it becomes. Why has Hassan waited until now to go on the quest that will allow him to become sheik? How does a magic medallion confer the sheikdom? What claim to the throne does the Wazir have?

Those questions may, in fact, be answered in a nearly impenetrable flurry by assorted sidekicks and hench people, but they're all window dressing anyway. The plot is simply "hero saves damsel from moustache-twiddling villain," just as it was in stage melodramas of the 19th century and in every Hollywood action movie today.

Van Slyke and his team, both onstage and off, are in fine form.

With the exception of the hero and heroine, played by David Fanning and Heather Stricker-Dispensa, performers rotate the roles. The cast on the night I attended (a Thursday) was uniformly strong, with the actors clearly having a good time. It was often hard to tell whether their bits of comic business were rehearsed or improvised.

In the title role, Fanning—who (appropriately) stands taller than the rest of the cast—projects the earnest, charismatic blockheadedness of the prototypical hero, a man without vice or introspection. Fanning claims the audience's attention with the confidence of a Vegas lounge singer, and he has a nice, booming voice to boot.

Stricker-Dispensa, as the virtuous Princess Serena, successfully channels every blond ingénue in existence, from imperiled Pauline, to Disney princess, to teenage Valley Girl. She belts out hits with the rest of the cast, and gets a few opportunities to show off her classically trained soprano.

The scheming of the Wazir, played by a gleefully scenery-chewing David Orley, keeps the story in motion, but he is consistently trumped by Todd Thompson's Sheik Yerboutie. His quips ("I can handle my boos!") and oft-reprised theme song (you can probably guess what it is) make him an audience favorite.

The leads are well-matched by the supporting ensemble: baby-faced Mike Yarema, charming Sarah Vanek, hapless Sean MacArthur and powerhouse singer Katherine Byrnes. Joe Cooper, a performer with Gaslight since 1983, has the deadpan features and comic timing of the great Buster Keaton.

The characters are never too far from bursting into anachronistic song, accompanied by the Gaslight's hardworking three-piece band, under the musical direction of Linda Ackermann. Numbers include "Arabian Delight" (aka "Afternoon Delight") and "Super Sheik." The latter tune is paired with energetic M.C. Hammer-style dance moves, created by choreographer Nancy La Viola. The dancing throughout is playful and high-energy; the movement draws upon a range of styles as varied as the music.

The sets are beautifully rendered by Gaslight stalwart Tom Benson. His painted flats evoke both the vintage stagecraft of historic melodrama and the sweeping backdrops of the sword-and-sandal epics of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Especially delightful are the occasional bits of hokey theatrical magic. Miniatures conjure up characters riding a flying carpet in the distance; elsewhere, the actors mount horses and camels made of hinged wood.

The sets are nicely complemented by the candy-colored lighting of David Darland and the playful costumes of Renee Cloutier and Maryann Trombino.

But as strongly assembled and performed as The Son of the Sheik is, the post-show "olio" almost outshines it. Like melodrama itself, the olio is a very old theatrical tradition. In the old days, a collection of various novelty performers—singers, jugglers, trained animals—would cavort onstage after a serious play or between the acts.

And while the melodrama wins the audience's love because of its adherence to a familiar, creaky formula, the olio unleashes an extra burst of energy and hilarity, because there is no telling what will happen next. It's pop-culture anarchy.

Riffing on a TV talent show, this olio, You've Got Talent, is hosted by Cooper as Regis Philbin, and Fanning as David Hasselhoff. The audience is invited to vote for favorite performances via applause.

Among the best were Stricker-Dispensa doing a Wagnerian cover of "Funky Town," and a trio of bee-hived telephone operators (Byrnes, Stricker-Dispensa and Vanek) singing "I'm So Excited."

Whoever wins the popular vote, the whole show is a winner. Gaslight once again invites you to lay down any crisis (Middle Eastern or otherwise) in favor of an evening of carefree, cartoon fun.

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