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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Monty Python's Spamalot
Marin Shakespeare Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Susan Zelinsky and Jarion Monroe
Photo by Jay Yamada
On the surface, the works of the (justly) famed Monty Python comedy troupe can seem random, abstract, loose, improvisational, even chaotic. Yet nothing can be further from the truth. Python comedy is cunningly constructed and tightly edited. Even sketches that feature significant repetition of phrases or subject matter (e.g. "The Cheese Shop," "Spam," "The Dead Parrot Sketch") use that repetition to highlight the absurdity of a situation in order to heighten the satire. So no matter how loose the text may seem on the surface, performing Python's works requires incredible precision and pinpoint comic timing. This is why—despite several strong performances—the overall effect of Marin Shakespeare Company's production of Monty Python's Spamalot is disappointing.

Spamalot is "lovingly ripped off" from the best-known (though not the best, that honor going to The Life of Brian) Python film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The plot is similar: King Arthur is tasked by God (here a giant illustration identical to the one in the film) to recover the Holy Grail, recruiting a cadre of knights to aid him in this quest. Most of the best bits from the film—the Black Knight, the "anarcho-syndicalist commune," the Knights Who Say Ni, the French Taunters, and Tim the Enchanter—are here, and even Python fans who can recite the sketches by heart will find themselves laughing at them all over again.

Those who have seen the film but have never enjoyed the musical version will also likely be charmed by the songs that have been added by composers Eric Idle (who is also responsible for the book and lyrics) and John Du Prez. The best of these—"The Song That Goes Like This" and "The Diva's Lament," both sung by The Lady of the Lake, are marvelous send-ups of Broadway ballads, snarky and sarcastic yet lovely and tuneful. But those fans may be disappointed at the sloppiness of Robert Currier's direction, and the less-than-precise performances from some of the cast. A case in point is the second scene, in which a line of hooded monks chant in Latin and, at the end of each line, strike themselves in the forehead with the heavy books each carries. But the timing is off, and one monk leans their head into the book, instead of vice versa. This lack of unison undercuts the comedy. Currier claims to be a die-hard Python fan, yet he allows his cast—on multiple occasions—to divert from the original spirit of the piece. (And, as one of the Pythons' "most ardent and appreciative fans," he should know better than to allow this, or to misquote "The Dead Parrot Sketch" in his director's notes.)

Still, it's hard to totally ruin the genius of Monty Python, and thanks to several solid performers, there are still many laughs being wrung from Spamalot. Anchoring the show is Bay Area stage veteran Jarion Monroe as Arthur. Monroe brings a regal bearing and sonorous voice to his role, as well as a quiverful of eye rolls, brow raises, and double takes that are marvelously in tune with the text. Joseph Patrick O'Malley (who was one of the best things about Marin Shakespeare's Measure for Measure earlier this summer) owns every scene he's in—and given that he plays about half a dozen roles, that's a lot to own. But his sparkling eyes and delicate physicality get put to excellent use in each of them. His Historian is appropriately elegant, his Not Dead Fred wonderfully limp and rubbery, and his Prince Herbert hysterically wan and breathy. Michael P. McDonald gets the Python rhythms as well as anyone in the cast, and Patrick Russell does good work in his roles, including as Arthur's horse—actually a human banging coconuts together to imitate the sound of hooves—Concorde. (Though it is misspelled in the program as "Concord"—the Pythons meant the name as an anachronistic reference to the supersonic plane.)

As The Lady of the Lake, Susan Zelinsky gets two of the best songs, and delivers them with a solid soprano and a deep appreciation for their satirical nature. She clearly relishes her role, and her enthusiasm is infectious. When she complains in "The Diva's Lament" that her character isn't getting enough stage time, the audience seemed to heartily agree.

The show is also a mixed bag technically. The sets, by Joel Eis, are serviceable, but rarely add to the overall comic effect. Eis was also responsible for propping, and that work is better, doing a fine job with the Knights Who Say Ni, Tim the Enchanter and—especially—The Black Knight. And costume designer Michael Berg is to be commended for accomplishing such a wide range of outfits with such aplomb. But the lighting, by April George, seems pointless and distracting. Lighting design should be subtle, and probably unnoted by an audience, but here sudden color changes seem unmotivated and gobos look out of focus.

If you're a fan of the Pythons but have never seen Spamalot, there's enough good work here (mainly from the performers and, of course, writer Eric Idle) to warrant a visit to the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre. For the rest of us, you're probably better off adding Monty Python and the Holy Grail to your video on-demand queue.

Monty Python's Spamalot, through August 25, 2019, at Marin Shakespeare Company, Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael CA. Show times are 8:00pm Thursdays and Fridays, 6:30pm Saturdays, and 4:00pm Sundays. Ticket prices are $38 general, $35 senior, and $10-12 for youth 25 and under. More information is available by calling 415-499-4488 or visiting