Buntport takes on centuries-old entertainment law in The Roast Beef Situation

The six members of the Buntport Theater Company like taking up strange facts, historical anomalies and odd and eccentric bits of information and working them into their communally created plays. After one Buntporter spotted Tommy Lee Jones standing in line for tickets to La Bohème at the Santa Fe Opera, they came up with the inspired idea of turning the actor into a giant puppet, seating him in a coffee shop with a chatty waitress and a piece of pie in front of him, and having him muse on life, art, music, performance and Puccini in Tommy Lee Jones Goes to the Opera Alone. The marriage of symbol, action and words was potent (and will be returning to Buntport for three days at the end of this month). Some years ago, in The Mythical Brontosaurus, they created a character who had to be coaxed out of near catatonia because of a crisis of faith: He had found out that the brontosaurus was no more, that it was only a juvenile specimen of a previously discovered lizard.

So when they learned that an eighteenth-century clown named Carlo Delpini had gone to prison because he'd said the words "roast beef" on a stage unaccompanied by music, thus contravening a meaningless and idiotic law laid down by the Lord Chamberlain, they were inspired.

Absurdity and humor definitely flavor The Roast Beef Situation. The costumes — evocative of commedia dell' arte, with Delpini in the traditional white clown outfit with a soft shape-changing hat and the others sporting bald heads with curls of various hues, some of which are used periodically as facial hair — are brilliant in their shape, color and detail. There's a loaf of French bread in the hand of a prison guard that turns out to be amusingly rubbery rather than stiff. All of the personalities are clownish, and there are scenes that repeat like a leitmotif.

But unfortunately, the repeating scenes don't add the resonance they should, and the piece just doesn't work. Jokes get repeated too often. When Delpini first gets to prison, he finds that every one of his fellow inmates has bludgeoned a man to death, yet they're all shocked by his crime — not the words "roast beef," but the fact that he's an actor. Yes, actors were once considered vagabonds and trash, and, yes, the joke is mildly funny at first — but not funny enough for the number of airings it gets. Delpini's envy of the famous clown Grimaldi, who redefined the entire concept of clowning, likewise gets mentioned a couple of times too often. (Still, clowning is a topic I'd rather like to see the Buntporters explore sometime, given their own entirely original form of it.)

Mockery of absurd laws is an obvious theme, and Erin Rollman carries a long list of them, which she periodically unfurls from her breeches — another comic touch that works for a while but gets overused. But the play doesn't have much new to say about censorship or persecution — though the Lord Chamberlain actually continued to control what was seen on England's stages for more than two centuries. In 1963, the crazed comic genius Spike Milligan was told he could only mount The Bed Sitting Room, a post-apocalyptic satire of London nine months after World War III in which the protagonist had turned into a bed sitting room and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan into a parrot, if he made several cuts and changes, including the following: "The mock priest must not wear a crucifix on his snorkel" and "Omit 'the perversions of the rubber....' Substitute 'the kreurpes and blinges of the rubber.'"

This being a Buntport production, there are still some very funny moments, of course. In an inspired piece of mime, Brian Colonna as Delpini demonstrates a comic bit in which he raises his right leg and uses it like a gun — not very effectively — and Rollman promptly shows how it should be done, finishing with a loud and convincing gunshot. Colonna's highly physical description of a traditional Punch and Judy show is also terrific, and so is the discussion that Evan Weissman initiates about the difficulties of living up to his name, Plausible Jack.

But the semi-serious points the company wants to make feel fragmented and unconvincing, and the moments of high-flying absurdity aren't quite frequent enough to carry the evening.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman