With Monty Python's Spamalot! garnering the most Tony nominations on Broadway this year, sketch comedy seems to be moving off the tube and back onto the boards. In fact, the success of shows such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall and SCTV owes much to a UK stage show that started in 1960. When writers Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller created Beyond the Fringe, a mishmash of irreverent silliness and satire, audiences discovered a comedy template that continues to enjoy wild popularity. Main Street Theater is reviving the '60s stage production, which includes roughly 20 sketches ranging from solo pieces to four-person ensemble bits, covering comedy territory from the silly and absurd to pointed political satire.
The four-member cast will update some of the troupe's most famous sketches, like "One Leg Too Few," in which a man with one leg auditions for the role of Tarzan. "I saw them do it on SNL in the '70s when they hosted," says co-director Mark Adams. "Peter Cook plays a casting director, and Dudley Moore hops in on one leg. It's one of the funniest sketches in the history of British comedy. It scores big, big laughs." Various music clips are used to keep the action going between the uproarious performances. "Everything from the Divinyls' 'I Touch Myself' to the Beatles' 'Fool on the Hill' -- even Wang Chung is used to comment on the sketches as they cinematically flow one to the next," says Adams.
Adams and co-director Robert de los Reyes conceived the project through their friendship as actors. "When Rob and I have performed together," recalls Adams, "we'd throw out lines from Beyond the Fringe, and it just got us excited about doing a production of it somewhere. Rob had done some sketches from the show in college, and I had practically memorized some of the sketches from hearing them so much over the years." The play was Main Street's first production as a theater in 1975. Adams and de los Reyes had participated in Main Street productions before, so the Rice Village theater was a natural choice for the show.
Beyond the Fringe's meteoric rise to fame was unexpected. As with many showbiz connections, the show's roots lie in college. "They were four university hot shots at the time, and they didn't really know each other," says Adams. "A very smart impresario producer brought them all together, and it just took off like wildfire. It was such an enormous influence on comedy at the time." In 1962, the theater sketch became a BBC television program, starring such giants as Benny Hill and soon-to-be-Python Graham Chapman.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Beyond the Fringe is its relative freshness, while '70s SNL material seems obvious and dated to audiences of today. By inserting "Bush" for, say, "Johnson," a Fringe sketch referring to Vietnam instantly invokes Iraq. "It's amazing to me the kind of resonance this has 40 years later," says Adams, "whereas if you were to see some Dan Aykroyd Jimmy Carter bit from SNL in 1976, it just wouldn't land at all. We couldn't have imagined the Beyond material would remain that current."
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