In Main Street Theater's hysterical production of Beyond the Fringe, the following characters all appear: Tony Blair, a coal miner and a one-legged man who wants to play Tarzan. And as unlikely as it might sound, they all snug together quite nicely. The 1960s British sketch comedy, created by a fabulous foursome that included Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore, was first performed at Main Street back in 1975. Amazingly enough, decades of political and cultural warfare have done nothing to dim the deliciously tart silliness of this satire. With just an update or two, director/ performers Mark Adams and Robert de los Reyes have created what may be the smartest two hours of laughs on any Houston stage this summer.
Leaning toward the political left, the show covers everything from the war in Iraq to civil defense to the possibilities of Armageddon. America's amorphous identity is also briefly discussed by Adams and de los Reyes, along with two other actors who play the various Brits who occupy this oftentimes bizarre world of wacky weirdos. But politics is not the primary focus here. It's Western culture and all its foolishness that gets a thorough roasting in the handful of sketches that make up this remarkable show.
Some of the best moments take a stab at religion. In one scene, the apostle Matthew interviews a shepherd who was there when Jesus was born, but the shepherd is more interested in the randy business of his sheep than in what went on in the manger. In another scene, de los Reyes makes a hilarious minister who opens his homily with an absurd passage from Genesis, saying, "Esau, my brother, is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man." He repeats the line again, in the measured cadence of a paternal Protestant preacher, and then attempts to connect the nonsensical line to the lives of his parishioners as if there were some sort of obvious spiritual logic to the verse. This is British humor at its best: wry, wicked and utterly irreverent. And these actors have the rhythm down. The cast is supremely good at being British.
One of the funniest performers is Adams, who plays some of the strangest characters. Among the most memorable is a droll restaurant owner who talks about the dismal failure of his place thanks to its limited menu -- only two dishes are offered, and both are made from peaches and frogs. Another character Adams plays is a downcast miner who philosophizes long and hard about why he chose to become a coal miner instead of a judge. Still another: the director of a Tarzan film. He points out to a one-legged actor just where his "deficiency lies as regards to landing the role" of Tarzan. "It is in the leg division," says the director. "To my mind the British public is just not ready for the sight of a one-legged ape man swinging through the jungle." Grandly pompous and proper, he breaks the bad news with absurd care. All this is marvelously English, and it shows just how far good manners can go toward smoothing over the world's ridiculous cruelties.
Of course, sex gets a good going-over here -- this script hails from the land of Benny Hill, after all. In a scene called "Tea for Two," de los Reyes and Chris Tennison converse for quite a while on the differences between women and men. Goofy puns abound: Cosmopolitan is a woman's "periodical" that comes out "monthly." In another strange scene, a prudish father sets his 18-year-old son on his knee to tell him a bizarre version of the facts of life. It involves sitting in a chair and waiting four years for a baby to be born.
Shannon Emerick is the only woman in the cast, and she often plays straight woman to the more colorful characters played with absolute glee by the men in the cast. But she does get to shine as a disgruntled cabdriver who totes a gun and scares the bejesus out of her passenger.
Played out on a skeletal set with chairs and props that get whisked on and off by the actors, Beyond the Fringe exudes a nimble joy about our absurd world full of lovable, laughable eccentrics. If all conversations about religion, politics and culture could be this well mannered and outrageously funny, we'd all be better off.
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