Huntington Theater: Dial "M" for Mayhem

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated production of the season was a world premiere, Huntington Theater Company’s “M”, local luminary Ryan Landry’s take on Fritz Lang’s classic film. Those familiar with the source material, the film noir about a serial child killer, wondered how this could possibly serve as a basis for the sort of madcap comedy for which Landry is famous in Boston. The announcement that yet another local legend, Karen MacDonald, would be playing the title role, originally enacted by none other than Peter Lorre, only added fuel to the fire. Landry’s considerable fan base was fascinated at both the possibilities and potential pitfalls inherent in his access to a much larger venue, a much more conservative audience and a notably larger budget. They needn’t have worried; what has emerged is a somewhat schizophrenic amalgam of elements, which will be appealing to some and appalling to others. Whatever an individual theatergoer’s response is, this is undeniably a wild and wacky demonstration of what happens when a brilliant mind is given the keys to the candy store. Hands down, this is the most creative work seen on a Boston stage this season.

When the curtain raises, we’re informed that we’re about to see a “dramedy”, and that eight victims have already been killed. Several other murders subsequently occur, but by the end of the evening it’s quite clear what has survived the mayhem: vaudeville is certainly not dead. Without divulging too many of the endless sight gags and sly allusions, suffice it to say that in the space of what is described as “90-ish” minutes, Landry manages to skewer the musical “Annie”, the music from “Psycho”, Mickey Mouse, “Hansel and Gretel”, Dick Tracy, "Raisin in the Sun" and just about every slapstick routine and device except for a whoopee cushion. What should be essential preparation for seeing this work is viewing the original film (since Landry continually references it), which Huntington Theater has helpfully provided on its website. Meanwhile, Landry not only breaks down the theatrical fourth wall, he demolishes it, once too often, as though it was a novelty and one had never heard of Ionesco, much of absurdist theater, or even Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo”. The humor is intentionally sophomoric, scatological and vulgar. Whether one enjoys this sort of thing will depend on one’s love (or lack thereof) of farce and puerile screwball comedy. At the opening night performance, about half of the audience (including this critic) seemed uninvolved most of the time, while the rest of the audience was convulsed with hysterical laughter. Ryan thus would appear to have succeeded at conjuring up a controversial piece of theater.

The choice of Karen MacDonald at first looks controversial too, as she has little to do for most of the play but skulk and whistle, but in the work’s final scene she comes into her own, superbly channeling the Peter Lorre performance (especially the one reenacted by him in the French version of the film). The rest of the cast, including The Woman (Ellen Adair), The Man (Paul Melendy), The Pig (Larry Coen), Fritz (David Drake), Schlitz (Laura Latreille) and Olga (Samantha Richert) are all adept at scenery chewing. The Little Girl (alternating Eva Jean Chapuran & Ava Rose Cooke) is seen briefly. Most of the cast portray other roles as well, including that of a critic, wherein Landry delivers some preemptive strikes in the likely event that his play might not be universally acclaimed. As directed by Caitlin Lowans, the cast appears to be having the bulk of the evening’s fun, joyfully digesting the amazingly clever scenery by Jon Savage. The Costume Design by Scott Martino, Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan, Music and Sound Design by David Remedios and the Puppetry Direction by Roxanna Myhrum are all marvelous to behold. Special mention should be made of the Projections Design by Garrett Herzig, so perfect it makes one believe there should be an award category for this technology.

In the end, there is a lot of both magic and mystery in this production, which is a noble effort all around. If your cup of tea is the likes of Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and a Hasty Pudding show, this will be just your (tea) bag. If not, fair warning: Ryan Landry, as usual, takes no prisoners.

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