The Bard vs. the Head

Plays at Invisible Theatre and Beowulf Alley each have their charms, although they fail to impress

The Invisible Theatre caps its 40th anniversary season with Premiere! by Dale Wasserman.

Premiere! is a play about theater people, and the premiere at its heart is their holy grail: an undiscovered work by William Shakespeare. While some celebrate the tragic poetry of this new masterpiece, others are forced to admit that it's less than authentic.

The play has all you'd expect from the Invisible Theatre—a talented cast, laughs and a genial sensibility that makes an evening at the theater feel cozy and welcoming. The set, by Susan Claassen and director James Blair, has never made that tiny stage look more spacious.

However, while all the ingredients are there, the formula offers only mixed results this time.

The problem lies in large part with the script. Wasserman, who passed away in 2008, comes with some serious writing credentials: He was the scriptwriter for the musical Man of La Mancha, and adapted One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the stage. This work, however, lacks the fire and craft evident in those works.

The play revolves around Gil Fryman, a successful, Neil Simon-type comedy writer who longs for the artistic freedom to compose a verse tragedy. When a Shakespeare scholar comes snooping around his father-in-law's antique book collection, Gil sees his chance to produce a new work by the old Bard.

The play feels like it wants to be a farce, with doors slamming and plotlines twisting as the hero tries to keep his secret concealed. Instead, there is barely a speed bump between Gil and the attainment of his goal.

Blair works diligently to compensate for the show's lack of punch, leading his hardworking cast to create broad, high-energy performances. The acting style, combined with Maryann Trombino's chic costumes, creates the feeling of a classic TV sitcom, which makes the occasional references to cell phones and Telemundo seem oddly anachronistic.

As Fryman, Robert Anthony Peters is a man driven by his emotions, whether that's his passion for language or his fear of getting caught. Dallas Thomas, as his wife, Rebecca, gets one scene of delicious, Lady Macbeth-like scheming before being reduced to dithering and fretting for the rest of the play.

Joe Hubbard and Roberto Guajardo, as Rebecca's brother and father, bring genial wit to their roles as the voice-of-reason foils to Gil's scheming.

The show is nearly stolen by Victoria McGee, who plays a boozing, boorish, self-aggrandizing Shakespeare scholar, and Nick Cianciotto, as Lefty Guggenheim, a forger with the highest standards of integrity. Both characters are full of unique details and quirks—in their text and in their performances—that make them a pleasure to watch. However, they are also both weighed down with the sort of lengthy monologues that happen when a playwright wants to show off how thorough his research has been.

As it turns out, not every premiere is a lost Shakespeare play, and not every production is a smashing success. But here's hoping that Invisible Theatre has plenty of the latter, as they embark on their next 40 years.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Head: The Musical! has taken over the stage of the Beowulf Alley Theatre Company.

Head is the kind of production that is sometimes referred to as "critic-proof." That means two things: One, it's not the sort of show that really stands up to critical examination; and two, its target audience is not likely to let a bad review get in the way of a good time.

If you enjoy Saturday Night Live but find the humor a little too nuanced, or if you'd love South Park even more without the social commentary, this may be the perfect show for you. Grab some friends; throw back a few drinks; and head downtown for some raunchy, campy fun.

Personally, I found more pleasure in watching The Brain That Wouldn't Die, the B-movie on which the musical is based. But to each his own.

The story begins, as all great tragedies do, with a star-crossed romance. Dr. Bill Cortner (Kevin Fry, the show's writer and director) is a brilliant surgeon, obsessed with human transplant experiments. His fiancée, Jan (Kristina Sloan), is simply horny. A blowjob during a high-speed drive in the country results in Jan's death, but Bill retrieves her severed head and manages to revive it in his blood-streaked laboratory.

Jan wishes she'd have died rather than become a monster, and as Bill goes on the hunt for a suitably buxom replacement body, Jan begins plotting her revenge with the monstrous Creature lurking in the doctor's closet—the result of previous failed experiments.

Fry's singing voice is light but pleasant, and his boyish features contrast nicely with his character's sinister behavior. The talented Sloan works some great physical comedy while tucked into the head-on-a-table set piece (by designer Sheldon Metz) and shows off her dancing prowess in the few moments when she gets to roam free, but in general, the script doesn't provide much for its title character to do.

The supporting cast offers occasionally unpolished, but always enthusiastic, performances. Standouts include Jim Klingenfus' role as Bill's deformed assistant; Tashiana Holt belting the show's best song as Jeannie, the nymphomaniac; and Evan Warner, who energizes the stage as the cross-dressing stripper Seductra.

Fry's score is mostly unsophisticated parodies of treacly, '60s-era pop music, with occasional nods to '80s guitar rock. Appropriately, choreographer Mickey Nugent's work largely sticks to simple, backup-dancer moves for the ensemble, with a couple of spirited exceptions, such as the high-energy "The Thing Inside."

In his program notes, Fry (half-seriously, I suspect) states that he wants to return musical theater to its sexually explicit roots. I would counter that Head's sex simulations, dildos and "shocking" language drain away the subtext of the original movie without adding much value.

It is some kind of accomplishment, though, to out-trash a B-movie, and there are pleasures to be found in watching an intentionally bad musical. If a naughty, tasteless romp sounds like your kind of night on the town, then make your way down to Beowulf Alley.