I am wholly convinced that every last one of you is racking your left brain right now trying to figure out why I might take time from my very busy schedule to review another Theatre on Fire production so soon after their smash hick, Exit, Pursued by a Bear. The reason is perfectly simple. There is no Boston fringe theatre actor more reputedly hackneyed than Craig Houk and I wasn’t about to pass up a rare opportunity to witness this erratic and delusional thespian in action at the helm of an 80’s British World War I sitcom. Live on stage no less! And I say rare because, rumor has it, Theatre on Fire is the only company in town still willing to hire such a mouth-foaming, bottom feeding asshat.
Blackadder Goes Forth: Live! is based on the hugely successful Richard Curtis and Ben Elton television series of nearly the same name, a comedy series that began with The Black Adder and essentially launched the career of Rowan Atkinson, one of Great Britain’s most esteemed comedic actors. How curious that the same role will now serve as the final nail in Mr. Houk’s Boston fringe theatre coffin, an actor known more for his bizarre toilet habits than his theatrical talents. But before I clamber up the mountain of ham and cheese that is Mr. Houk’s acting style, let’s take a meaningful look at Theatre on Fire’s latest foray into the satirical world of miscommunication, incompetence and calamity.
The stage version (like the TV version) is set in 1917, three years into World War I. Captain Edmund Blackadder is a weathered soldier in the British Army who, until the eruption of the Great War, enjoyed a somewhat lengthy, albeit lackluster, military career “perfecting the art of ordering a pink gin and saying Do you do it doggy-doggy? in Swahili”. Finding himself stuck in the trenches with the "big push" looming, Blackadder’s singular concern is to avoid, by any means possible, being sent over the top to certain death. With the assistance of his optimistic yet dimwitted Lieutenant George and his grimy direct descendant of a gorilla Private Baldrick, Blackadder attempts to escape his circumstances through various ludicrous methods, all of which fail to varying frenzied degrees.
Director Darren Evans has assembled a perfect cast, which, as many of you know, is always a huge disappointment for me. The combined intellect of Mr. Evans’ team of 9 actors is the equivalent of the man in London who was recently banned from shagging his boyfriend because he had an IQ so low that he was unable to grasp the health risks associated with his vigorous sex drive. And a low IQ is precisely what’s needed to pull off a show as complex as this one. And, boy oh boy, do these actors have it in spades!
Chris Wagner, as Private Baldrick, was so believably filthy that I was compelled to move to the back row of the audience for fear that his boil might detonate and cause some serious collateral damage. And no other actor could ever pull off stupidity as capably as Mr. Wagner does. Christopher Sherwood Davis as Lieutenant George was authentically inbred. His wide blue eyes were like large bodies of rippling water filled with floating deceased fish. Vacuous has never been played so fervently. John Geoffrion, as Captain Darling, skillfully captured smug and devious like they were two feral pigs loose on the streets of an upper class white neighborhood in Los Angeles. And casting could not have been more perfect with Michael Steven Costello as the deranged, demented and always unpredictable General Melchett.
Jason Beals as Squadron Commander Flashheart left me completely spent and walking with a limp. His motto: “Always treat your kite like you treat your woman… get inside her five times a day and take her to heaven and back”. Woof! Terrence Haddad as Sargent Jones and then later as Baron von Richtoven verily crackled with electricity. His performance left me with an irregular heartbeat, muscle spasms, and an unrelenting tingling sensation. Terry Torres’ performance as the kindly masculine jailor, Perkins, was utterly heartfelt, which made his transformation into the über feminine, terror inducing homosexual, Lieutenant von Gerhardt all the more riveting. And Chelsea Schmidt, as Bob and Nurse Mary, left this reviewer totally perplexed about her gender and pondering the actual size of her assault rifle and grenades.
And last but certainly least... Craig Houk as Captain Edmund Blackadder. Admittedly, I was mystified by this casting decision. What remote personal experiences could the infamous Mr. Houk draw upon to effectively play this iconic role? Blackadder is a self-serving, cynical opportunist with scathing wit, charm and intelligence. He’s a man surrounded by simple-minded servants, contemptuous equals and mad superiors. And despite these challenges, Blackadder approaches everyone he encounters with an unapologetic brutal honesty that each flat out refuses to heed, or is too narcissistic to heed, or is too foolish to heed. So again, I ask you, how was Mr. Houk able to pull this off in such a convincing way? We may never know. What I do know, however, is that he manages to succeed in this role while simultaneously serving up so much cheese over six episodes that you might find yourself constipated for weeks.
That being said, if there's anyone to blame for the shocking success of this production, it's Darren Evans. I knew there was something short bus special about this guy the moment he arrived on stage for the curtain speech waving his arms around like two wind socks in a hurricane and hollering, “Good evening everyone!” Evans could successfully motivate a corpse from its coffin.
If you’re looking for disastrous entertainment, then check out your buck toothed, tone-deaf eight year old son as the titular character in his 2nd grade large cast production of The Little Prince. Otherwise, if you’re looking to catch a well-executed and well-crafted homage to a highly celebrated 80's television series, then do not miss Blackadder Goes Forth: Live! now playing through May 11th at the Charlestown Working Theatre. To purchase tickets, go here: http://www.theatreonfire.org/#!tickets/c23ct