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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Valhalla: Paul Rudnick at His Most Ridiculous

Also see Bob's review of Bad Dates

Kevin Sebastian and Dennis DaPrile
Essentially, two separate stories form the basis for Paul Rudnick's quasi absurdist comedy Valhalla.  One of them is simultaneously factual and fanciful in its depiction of the life of Ludwig II, the eccentric, latter nineteenth century homosexual King of Bavaria (unfairly known to history as The Mad King).  The other is a fictional tale of the maturation of a gay male youth in a small Texas town before and during World War II.  The Ludwig story, written in an absurdist, broadly comic style (reminiscent of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company),  becomes a wildly imaginative, slapsticky, gay fantasia on the life of Ludwig.  The fictional Texas youth's tale is far more realistically told, even when that story moves into the realm of the absurd.

Rudnick tells the two stories in parallel fashion. However, his effort to make us see the stories as parallel are strained and unconvincing. James Avery, 10-year-old small town Texas fourth grader, beguiled by its beauty steals a crystal swan.  Ten-year-old Ludwig loves a flesh and blood swan. Both lovers of beauty proceed through their adolescence and burgeoning sexuality.  At age 12, Avery seduces his friend Henry Lee with pictures from an art book ("History of Greco-Roman Art" - "this is the best book I ever read"). At 14, Ludwig dresses in a nun's habit, and his mother, the Queen, says "You're dressed like a nun." ("I know".)  "Then act like one".  Fifteen-year-old Avery is sent off to a reformatory after he burns down his house and runs away in a pick-up truck with Henry Lee.  Sixteen-year-old Ludwig impersonates Aphrodite as he is given "sex lessons" by Helmut, his fitness instructor.  And Rudnick is just warming up.

The thematic unity of these stories is provided by Rudnick's simultaneous send up and celebration of the notion of the aesthetic love of art and beauty by gay men. Ludwig, who was a patron of Richard Wagner, is depicted here as addicted to Wagner's operas. He attends performances of Lohengrin and Tannhauser night after night, dreams that he is performing the latter, and chains himself to his throne in an attempt to break his addiction.  Avery and Henry Lee perform a lively musical comedy number on a World War II Army troopship ("We'll be Ethel Mermans and beat all those Germans").

Ludwig built a series of storybook style castles including one whose hall of mirrors exceeded the one at Versailles.  In the second act, when Avery and Henry Lee are dropped behind enemy lines and come into one such castle, both stories converge across two centuries.  It is at this point that Valhalla delightfully unifies the threads of its two stories, adding a spirit Marie Antoinette for good measure.  However, Rudnick continues on at some length only to reiterate ideas already sufficiently expressed.  Natalie Kippelbaum somehow arrives to lead a tour group of Jewish women on a tour of the castle.  This variation of his alter-ego, comical "film critic" Libby Gelman-Waxner, is quite amusing, but inorganic to the play.  Then Rudnick takes us through the balance of Ludwig's and Avery's lives, ultimately again uniting the two stories as Ludwig and Avery's daughter reach out to each other across the divide of time.

Mark Spina has directed this complex play fluidly.  Dennis DaPrile is campily amusing as Ludwig.  Kevin Sebastian is lively as the rebellious James Avery. Four other actors play an additional 18 or so roles.  The most polished performance is that of Gail Lou.  She is regally dotty as the Queen (Ludwig's mother) and most amusing as Natalie, a stereotypical culture vulture, New York Jewish matron.  Jenelle Sosa gives nicely contrasting performances as Susan Mortimer, the vacuous but well meaning girl who comes between Avery and Henry Lee, and Sophie, the opera loving, humpbacked Princess, who is able to get the silly, youthful Ludwig to see her "inner beauty".  Stephen Medvidick as Henry Lee and Helmet, and Rick Delaney as Ludwig's advisor and confidante Pfeiffer lend solid support.

Paul Rudnick has filled his imaginative Valhalla with plenty of gags and a full quota of witty, funny lines.  It is likely to entertain most audiences.

Valhalla continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./Sun. 3 p.m.) through July 29, 2007 at The Theater Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016. Box Office: 908-659-5189/ online:

Valhalla by Paul Rudnick; directed by Mark Spina

James Avery……………………………….Kevin Sebastian
Ludwig……………………………………….Dennis Daprile
The Queen/ Natalie Kipplebaum, etc………………... Gail Lou
Sally/ Princess Sophie, etc……………………...Jenelle Sosa
Henry Lee, Helmut, etc………………...Stephen Medvidick
Pfeiffer, Otto, etc………………………………Rick Delaney

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- Bob Rendell

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