Jousting, Gaslight-Style

Gaslight Theatre does it again with a zany, if historically inaccurate, King Arthur farce

But soft! What wind through yonder theater breaks? It is Peter Van Slyke's latest Gaslight Theatre show, mooning the English tradition of chivalric tales: Prince Valiant, or Surely You Joust!

The musical melodrama spoof is set in "King Arthur's England" in the 1500s, which is off by a few hundred years. The show abounds with jousting--which, by the 16th century, was about as fashionable as the game of pogs is today--costumes that evoke the Middle Ages rather than the Renaissance, and goofy language that slightly anticipates Shakespeare, full of "verilies" and "doths" and "hey-nonny-nonnies." Not exactly period-authentic. But if you're expecting the History Channel, you've obviously never been to a Gaslight production.

Last Sunday night's audience didn't get the early throwaway Shakespeare references ("We were expecting you tomorrow ... and tomorrow ... and tomorrow"), so the assembled throng was probably relieved when Van Slyke gave up stealing lines from Macbeth and instead began quoting such historical English icons as Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle. Methinks the gentleman did ingest too much.

Anyway, here's the situation: While King Arthur is out of the country, Lord Agravine of the Dark Castle (David Orley) plots to take over England (shades of John Lackland versus Richard Lionheart). His main accomplice is the Dark Knight, Prince Mallibrawn (Christopher Wilken), abetted by the scurvy knave Zagamort (Joe Cooper) and the sorceress Lady Presilence (Sarah Vanek). The scheme somehow involves Lord Agravine winning the hand of Princess Genevieve (Deborah Klingenfus), who, judging from her speech impediment, is a distant but beautiful ancestor of Elmer Fudd. Sir Belvedere (Dan Gunther), a knight of the Round Table, bravely attempts to foil the conspiracy, but to no avail, despite--or perhaps because of--some bumbling assistance from the wizard Merlin (James Mitchell Gooden).

Fortunately, a champion arrives: the brave and true Prince Valiant (Todd Thompson), who hopes to win a seat at the Round Table through worthy deeds. And the worthiest deeds in sight are saving Princess Genevieve and thwarting Lord Agravine.

This being a Gaslight show, the characters frequently break out in anachronistic song. The classic "Swing Swing Swing" becomes a wonderfully rhythmic "King King King"; we get a stirring "Oh, What a Knight," and much more.

The cast is mostly Gaslight regulars, with newcomer Wilken joining the tomfoolery as if to the manner born. Thompson is boyish and confident in his first leading Gaslight role, flipping his pageboy hairdo most fetchingly. And when Thompson does "Wonder of You," this prince sings like The King.

Vanek initially seems too cute and perky to play a menacing sorceress (on some nights, she takes the role of Genevieve), but as soon as she launches into "Devil in Disguise," the kitten becomes a tiger. It doesn't hurt that her wig is just two streaks short of Bride of Frankenstein.

In this sort of show, one rather hopes for something to go wrong--a wig flies off; someone ad-libs to cover a fluffed line--and last Sunday was no disappointment. Gaslight actors are always at their best in the face of disaster. Hmm ... maybe that explains Van Slyke's longevity as the company's principal writer and director.

Even so, the inventively cheesy special effects threaten to steal the show. We get goofy uses and abuses of perspective, equestrian chases (this time with rearing horses) and a fire-breathing dragon, and all Tom Benson's scenery stands up to heavy chewing by the actors. So do pianist Linda Ackerman and drummer John Westfall.

As always, the cast returns after the main show for an olio, a mini revue of songs and comic routines. This time, it's back to the form's vaudeville roots, most of the cast performing old and, for the most part, justifiably forgotten songs, with Cooper providing Henny Youngman-like patter between numbers. Something that's actually relevant and thought-provoking happens by accident in the grand patriotic finale: The World War I song "Over There" includes the line, "We won't come back 'til it's over over there," which is a pledge neither main presidential candidate seems willing to make. My, how times change. But even if decades-old songs lose their luster, Joe Cooper is living proof that corny jokes are immortal.

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