Monday, November 10, 2014

theatre review VALHALLA Nearly Naked Theatre November 8

To read my review at Talkin' Broadway, click here

Vinny Chavez and Susan St. John
 Playwright Paul Rudnick is best known for his humorous film scripts and plays, including In and OutJeffrey and I Hate Hamlet. His somewhat lesser known 2004 comedy Valhalla has smart, hilarious components and situations, just like his other works, and is one of the smartest and cleverest plays of the past decade. It is an intricately woven comedy that explores the true nature of beauty and love and the cost that comes to those who aspire to find the two. Nearly Naked Theatre presented the play almost ten years ago and has brought it back in a production with a winning cast and creative elements and direction just as smart as Rudnick's script.

Rudnick intricately intertwines the story of the real King Ludwig II, the gay, crazy King of Bavaria in the 1880s, and fictional young Texas bisexual troublemaker James Avery in the 1940s. The play follows both men, from when they are boys of around ten to adulthood, and the people and objects of beauty they are enamored by and the price they pay in return for experiencing, sometimes even briefly, the beauty they desire. Rudnick finds many similarities in their lives as outcasts, across the continents and across time, which adds to the cleverness of the play. But there are even smarter touches. The script calls for the same actors to portray similar characters in Ludwig and Avery's lives. This includes having one actress portray the two very different mothers of the boys and another to portray the two women who are major influences on their adult lives. While this casting requirement is not exactly ingenious, it is a perfect way to have the juxtaposed stories come together very early in the play. There is also a creative use of several intertwined words that are repeated by the boys and an almost staccato-like delivery of dialogue in numerous scenes that play out across the time dimensions of the two stories. In the second act Rudnick manages to one up his cleverness in how the play moves beyond the comical moments that came before, as the two stories come together in a beautiful and moving way. Now, it doesn't all completely work. There are major shifts in tone from the almost slapstick Bavaria scenes to the more realistic Texan ones; there are multiple endings, though they all work and build on the ones that came before; and there really is no realistic way to show on stage the beauty that Ludwig aspires to achieve. But Rudnick still manages, even with the few shortcomings, to paint in a smart and clever way a comical, charming, touching and ultimately moving story of true beauty and how that beauty effects two very different men.

For a play that requires six actors to portray over a dozen roles, director Damon Dering has found a talented, hardworking and versatile cast to deliver expert yet varied, comical portrayals. Vinny Chavez has almost perfect comic timing as Ludwig, with his affected voice and overly expressive movements and gestures bringing the crazy, opera-loving Ludwig to vibrant life. As James Avery, Cole Brackney exhibits the perfect amount of cockiness and swagger used to enchant those he is enamored with in order to get them to do what he desires. With his slow, realistic Texas twang and bad boy behavior traits, Brackney makes Avery appear at first to be a somewhat self-obsessed individual. But he also achieves a deep sense of longing for the things Avery desires, through looks and vocal inflections that bring moments of melancholy and heartbreak, and transcend the role beyond caricature and stereotype. Chavez enlists similar attention, but since the beauty Ludwig loves is not exactly human, it doesn't end in the same emotional result. But I believe this is what Rudnick's intentions were—to show true beauty in both objects and individuals. Like Chavez, Brackney also appears to work seamlessly in getting laughs from Rudnick's many humorous lines.

Cole Brackney and Jacob Gentile
Jacob Gentile is sweet and touching as Avery's main focus of infatuation, Henry Lee. The scenes he shares with Brackney are quite effective in how both men realistically show how a very complicated relationship goes through highs and lows. Portia Beacham is a gem as the two main women in Ludwig and James' lives. She is comically sincere as Sally, the young Texan woman who finds herself stuck between James and Henry Lee, and comically hilarious as hunchback Princess Sophie, "the loneliest hunchback in Europe." Her deadpan delivery of Rudnick's dialogue has great results, both in the witty way she utters Sophie's self-mocking comments and her touching comical turn with Sally's monologue in the first act. Susan St. John is a hoot as Ludwig's mom, the Queen, but ratchets up the humor level as the modern day tour guide Natalie Kippelbaum. St. John is so completely different as the three women she plays, with vastly different accents, that you really can't believe it's the same actress playing all three roles. Pat Russel plays multiple roles with ease, from Ludwig's younger brother to a potential princess bride for Ludwig, yet his largest role is as Ludwig's confidant Pfeiffer, a part that ends up having a much larger impact than you originally think.

Dering's direction is just as smart, intricate and fluid as Rudnick's script. From the complex delivery of overlapping dialogue in several scenes across the two storylines to the intricate staging of the intertwined stories, Dering establishes a clarity in the play. As a testament to Dering's abilities, just look at how all six actors show perfect precision in the timing of the fast-paced, layered dialogue that requires, at times, all six to be on stage reciting sometimes just a succession of words to show the connection between the parallel stories of Ludwig and Avery.

Creative elements are lush and impressive. Eric Beeck's multi-layered set has two well defined playing areas for the two different time periods, as well as a nice surprise in the second act when the set opens up to reveal one of Ludwig's beautiful creations. Dering's costumes are plush and colorful and align perfectly with the periods and traits of the characters. Clare Burnett's lighting design is quite simple in the beginning, nicely portraying the two different storylines, yet explodes in color in the second act. Will Snider's sound design and Mark Bennett's original music add plenty of effective moments to the music focused plot. The combination of production elements perfectly parallels the comical notes and themes of beauty in the play.

Valhalla is a play that transcends stereotypes and attempts to explore what we believe true beauty is and how the impact of finding it can result in love, loss and madness. It is a creative, intelligent comedy and one of Rudnick's best. With smart, inspired direction and a virtually perfect cast, Nearly Naked's production is one of pure comic beauty.

Valhalla runs through November 29th, 2014, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at

Photos: Laura Durant

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