William Shakespeare was, above all else, a practical man. The sheer majesty of his verse notwithstanding, the Bard of Avon became the world's greatest playwright because he told his versions of borrowed (some would say stolen) stories better than anyone else. Which is why those who would improve upon Shakespeare's plays should at least try to tell the stories better than he did. It's a challenge that has attracted everyone from composer Giuseppe Verdi to Broadway tunesmith Cole Porter to actor and director Kenneth Branagh, all of whom have used Shakespeare's immortal words as foundations for their own artistic statements.
And then there's English playwright Bob Carlton, who has pushed the idea of adapting Shakespeare to its outer limits in his campy musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet. Carlton's show is a takeoff on the 1956 sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet, a futuristic Walter Pidgeon-Leslie Nielsen classic loosely based on The Tempest. Complicating matters further, Carlton's version features a cavalcade of vintage rock-and-roll hits that divert our attention from the twice-purloined, thrice-convoluted storyline--and that's not such a bad idea. After all, anyone who remembers his first visit to The Rocky Horror Picture Show should realize that following the storyline is sometimes secondary to participating in the event itself. Indeed, a current production of Carlton's show in Cape Town, South Africa, is said to be rife with audience participation, including vodka-swilling spectators who shout lines of dialogue along with cast members in a drunken twist on the Rocky Horror tradition.
Instead of relying on the unpredictable effects of alcohol to fuel audience members' enthusiasm, though, a new Actors Ensemble production of Forbidden Planet in Boulder relies on a first-rate band and a series of amusing special effects to propel the show. And though director Lynn Nichols and his actors sometimes fall short of their goal of boldly going where no local theater company has ever gone before (this regional premiere at the Guild Theater in Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts has been eighteen months in the planning), their efforts nonetheless make for a vigorously entertaining evening.
In fact, if the cast can overcome its occasional tendency to lapse into group comas, this production has the potential to become a local cult classic in the tradition of Carlton's original London production. That memorable effort nosed out Miss Saigon to win Britain's Olivier Award for best musical in 1990, proving that no matter how politically affecting Miss Saigon might be to mainstream audiences, a mere helicopter is no match for rock music and mid-calf Naugahyde boots.
As might be expected, the Boulder production actually begins at the box office, where patrons encounter the benign smiles of two attendants dressed in a strangely tasteful combination of Elizabethan clothing and Star Trek-inspired garb. Directed to the theater's entrance (thankfully, it's not labeled "air-lock" or "transporter room"), audience members are met by a costumed "crew member," a performer who pleasantly guides them to their seats and then departs with the words "Enjoy your flight." After everyone is seated, the actors assume their launch positions on a two-tiered stage that's a combination of bandstand and spacecraft, standing at attention while two video monitors display the talking head of the Newscaster (Ray Kemble). Boasting a resonant voice patterned after the declaiming singsong of a Fifties Laurence Olivier, the Newscaster welcomes us aboard Scientific Survey Number Nine and quickly informs us that our destination this evening is the famously off-limits asteroid D'Illyria (a comic corruption of Illyria, the setting for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, itself the subject of a short-lived 1968 Broadway musical set in a discotheque).
Realizing that audience members not attuned to the bizarre quirks of science fiction might at this point begin to plot their exit from the theater, Nichols and crew quickly shift their show into high gear. Drummer Pete Roos begins the familiar intro to "Wipe Out," and the performers dance a crossover step to the pulsating surf tune. To the accompaniment of flashing lights and eerie sound effects, the ship simulates liftoff and proceeds to the planet inhabited by Prospero (Tom Joyner) and his daughter Miranda (Carrie Symons). After a video clip introduces us to Prospero (who croons to us, "Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood"), we discover that the ship's Science Officer (Dawn Beck) is in reality Prospero's ex-wife, Gloria.
In a flurry of dialogue that brings to mind the stellar performing talents of William Shatner (who was a classically trained actor before devolving into his role as Captain Kirk), Captain Tempest (Greg Ungar) and his cohorts toss around Shakespearean lines as if reading from a collection of the Bard's best-loved quotes. As an added attraction, a card with a complete list of Shakespeare's plays is included in the program, and patrons are encouraged to check off as many as they are able to recognize throughout the course of the evening. In addition to setting the show's cut-and-paste tone, this brief collection of Bard-bites acquaints us with the Bosun (Wade Livingston), the ship's mess officer, Cookie (John Saunders), and the craft's Navigation Officer (band leader and keyboard player Larry Morrison). And without further ado, the cast launches into a spirited rendition of "Great Balls of Fire."
As we approach Prospero's planetary home, Gloria exits the stage and hijacks the ship's shuttle craft, presumably to settle an old score with her ex-mate. The video monitors depict the auxiliary craft's progress as Morrison makes obligatory mention of such terms as "tractor beam" and "dilithium crystals" while providing sound effects from his electronic keyboard. Though we long to hear a Scottish-accented voice declare, "I can't hold her any longer--she's gonna blow, Captain!" that never happens. Instead, Gloria returns to the ship through its prominently placed set of double doors, dragging in tow her husband, daughter and a robot, Ariel (Maggie Simms).
The remainder of Act One consists of several subplots and minor developments, most notably Miranda's romantic interludes with Cookie and Captain Tempest. Combining the words of Elizabethan England with the music of 1960s America, the love-struck performers mix selections from Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, Hamlet and Twelfth Night with rock classics like "Good Vibrations" and "A Teenager in Love." Then we learn that a one-eyed extraterrestrial is preying upon the inhabitants of the tiny spaceship. To the insistent throbbing of "Gloria," a thirty-foot silver serpent snakes its way onto the stage as the first half of the play ends.
And that's how Act Two begins--the performers pick up singing "Gloria" and continue their struggle with the formidable beast. In the heat of battle, one courageous character even summons the specter of Shakespeare's Henry V, reciting, "Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage." Just when it appears that the danger has subsided, Gloria attempts to gain the upper hand in her private struggle with Prospero. However, Ariel (the playwright's stand-in for the popular film character Robby the Robot) unholsters her ray gun and freezes Gloria in place as the cast croons, "Who's Sorry Now?" A few minutes later, a dolled-up Miranda (sporting go-go boots, a glittery minidress and a black wig teased to its limits) appears on stage to the seductive guitar chords of "Pretty Woman." At that point, it's best to just sit back and enjoy the show's unique combination of Shakespearean poetry punctuated by songs such as "Only the Lonely," "Hey Mr. Spaceman" and "Johnny Be Good."
While many of the performers deserve acclaim, Morrison and his band were the crowd favorites on opening night. From their perch on the set's top level, the mighty quartet caught the spirit of the music with inspired playing that also featured the right-on backing vocals of the beguiling Kristen Williams, appropriately clad in an aqua dress and matching cat sunglasses. Also rising to the occasion was Simms, whose superbly crafted portrayal featured robotic movements worthy of Marcel Marceau. And Symons devilishly colored her character's innocence with an enjoyably down-and-dirty attitude.
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To his credit, director Nichols has risen to most of the challenges posed by the show's astronomical number of technical and performing elements. Still, there are times in this production when the whole cast seems to start sleepwalking and loses its satirical edge. And though playwright Carlton didn't intend this collection of jokes, songs and poetry to parade as high art, the show is worth doing at its cutting-edge best if it's worth doing at all. To that end, several of the performers might want to inject a little far-out attitude into their lackluster efforts--as does Simms when she cuts loose with a raucous rendition of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" that almost prompts the crowd to join in. And though the gray-toned set stands as an adequate homage to the play's origins as a black-and-white film, that's no reason to drain the rest of the production of some much-needed color. Far from going over the top with costuming or special effects, the show doesn't have enough glitter, lame or wacky lighting gimmicks.
All in all, though, one can only imagine that Return to the Forbidden Planet will improve with time. Until then, Nichols and company might want to jump-start things by paraphrasing Shakespeare as Carlton might: "If music be the food of love, party on!"
Return to the Forbidden Planet, presented by the Actors Ensemble through March 28 at the Guild at the Dairy, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 449-3296.