Agent Antics 

Gaslight Theatre's new show proves the company's as zany as ever

Before Austin Powers, before Johnny English, before Top Secret!, and just before Our Man Flint, there was Bond, James Bond, the spy who launched a thousand spoofs. And why not? The early Bond movies (as opposed to the original novels) weren't outright takeoffs, but they had an insouciance, a nudge and a wink that let us know we needn't take the girls, the gadgets and the supervillains too terribly seriously. So why shouldn't others join the spy game and push the silliness a bit further?

Well, the silliness has been pushed right over the edge in the Gaslight Theatre's latest show, Secret Agent Man, or Gangsters Away! Let's just say that writer-director Peter Van Slyke's priority is not to, as they say in the espionage biz, gather intelligence. Applying much brain power to this show, or even trying to connect the plot points, would spoil the fun.

Our secret agent is Strong, Jake Strong, freshly minted from spy school and decked out in a spiffy, slim-line 1960s tux, perfect for a night at the casino. But there's a bigger gamble going on: Can the inexperienced agent bring down criminal mastermind Dr. Victor Vector and his henchmen before they take over the world with the help of a death ray they've stolen from the Soviets?

The action speeds along from an airplane to the Swiss Alps to a submarine to Mount Rushmore, and the plot can barely keep up. That's OK, under the circumstances, but there is one glaring lapse of logic: Vector heads an organization called Criminals Resolute in Making Evil--C.R.I.M.E., for short. Well, at one point, Vector rewards a fellow evil-doer with a big bag of gold Krügerrands. What nonsense. Everybody knows that C.R.I.M.E. doesn't pay.

Anyway, unlike his more famous British counterpart, Strong doesn't have to undertake his mission alone. He's aided by the thoroughly adept yet petite Miss Emma Singleton (think "Peel," but not while you're looking at her form-fitting catsuit; this is a family show). Somehow, Strong's boss, the indestructible Director Quill, keeps popping up, too, only to be nearly popped off again and again.

Everybody else onstage--it's a nine-member cast--seems to be a bad guy of some sort. It's as if Van Slyke couldn't settle on a single villain, so he used 'em all, and some potentially good ones are relegated to Igor status. Too bad, but maybe that's what audiences expect these days; just look at the Spider-Man and Batman movie franchises.

All the performers seem to be enjoying themselves, none less than Todd Thompson as Dr. Vector. David Fanning is just right as Agent Strong: tall and handsome, yet a little goofily ungainly as he leaps about the stage. The other roles are filled well by the usual Gaslight suspects: Deborah Klingenfus, Joe Cooper, Mike Yarema, David Orley, Maria Alburtus, Sarah Vanek and Robert Shaw. Among the men, Shaw is the best singer, but he isn't put to much use in this overcrowded show; his Russian-traitor character sings, of course, "Back in the U.S.S.R.," but Shaw's body mic wasn't working well the night I saw the show.

Regarding the music, from the show's title, you know what Fanning will be belting out all night. Other pop songs seem to have been appropriated almost at random, although music director Linda Ackermann and her combo put "Live and Let Die" to good use as chase music.

And those chase and fight scenes--they're always a hoot, with effects that are intentionally cheesy and low-budget yet hilariously creative. For this production, designer Tom Benson and his crew give us a chase on snow skis, complete with Alpine avalanche; a midair pursuit of an airplane by a spy with a jetpack; an undersea battle with a giant squid; and a Mount Rushmore climax somewhere north by northwest of Lincoln's nose.

The main show ends, and you assume justice has prevailed, but no--it's time for the olio, a tribute to the disco era, complete with blow-dried hair and enough polyester to remind us why there are periodic oil shortages. Every time I start to feel nostalgic for the 1970s, something like this happens.

Selections range from the Village People's greatest hits (both of them) to "Disco Duck." Actually, this is the part of the evening in which Nancy LaViola's choreography really counts, and Klingenfus, in particular, proves spectacular in the disco style, complete with Saturday Night Fever deadpan. Either she put a tremendous amount of work into it, or, god help her, disco comes to her naturally.

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