Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Wagner meets Paul Rudnick in a Laugh-Filled Valhalla
Paul Rudnick, who is known for his brittle witticisms, has a good dozen or more combustible funny moments - more than any other comedy I have seen this year. The scenes, wonderfully directed by Ed Decker, come upon the audience in rapid order throughout the two-hour twenty-five minute piece. Valhalla is a time-bending celebration of all things over the top with four actors - Patrick Michael Dukeman, Dann Howard, Jana Barber and Kate Finney - slipping effortlessly between two timelines portraying 17 characters.
Valhalla creates two characters, James Avery (Cole Smith) and Henry Lee Stafford (Daniel Kruger), in 1940s Texas along with a side by side story of King Ludwig of Bavaria in 1880 and his quest of beauty. Both James and Ludwig are equally flamboyant personalities, out to make the world seem beautiful. At the beginning of the play, Patrick, playing a 12-year-old Ludwig, says about beauty: "When I see something not beautiful, when it's drab and misshapen, when it's - what's the word," the Queen (Jana Barber) says "English?" and Ludwig responds "Yes, I have a physical reaction, a spasm, I can't control it." James forces people to see the truth inside their hearts as he pursues his seemingly straight childhood friend from locker rooms at high school through Henry's wedding ceremonies to both being soldiers in Bavaria during World War II where they end up at the fairy castle that was built by the mad king.
Richard Wagner, although not seen in this production, plays a big influence on King Ludwig's life when the king becomes infatuated with the great German composer, seeing his opera over and over again. One is reminded of the four ring cycle Wagner opera since the comedy contains the rebellious nature of Ludwig as a child, several kinds of forbidden love, a bride that is substituted and the elusive "ring" that in this case is beauty. Much is made of the composer's Lohengrin and the swan, which to the king is a thing of beauty.
Cole Smith is excellent as the obnoxious James Avey who starts as a 10-year-boy who describes his mother as "a vicious, dried up woman with bad hair and no taste." He displays a certain wildness of character as a young man from Texas. Daniel Krueger is very appealing as Henry Lee. The lovely Kate Finney displays precise comic flair in the roles of Sally and the humpback Princess Sophie.
Jana Barber, who plays many roles, is a hoot as Natalie Kippelbaum who guides a tour of Jewish women though the fairy castle after World War II. Her roles as mothers of both James and Ludwig are well done. Dann Howard is appropriately flamboyant in a variety of comedy turns. He is particularly impervious when playing the Pfeiffer to the King Ludwig.
Patrick Michael Dukeman is wonderful, going from a "girlie boy" to a king who is more like a raging "queen." His temper tantrums when he does not get his way are wonderful. His excitable outbursts when he sees a thing of beauty are superb. It is a tour de force of camp acting.
Sound designer Mark Bennett brilliantly uses snippets of Wagner's opera to change and highlight certain scenes. Costumes by Keri Fitch are excellent, especially in the scenes of 1880s Bavaria. Kit Wilder has devised some excellent fight choreography for the production. Director Ed Decker keeps the pace fast and furious and he lets Patrick run wild as the mad king.
Valhalla runs through June 24th at the bigger Ed Decker theatre at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness at Market, San Francisco. For ticket please call NCTC box office at 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.