The Spaghetti and Meatball Players seriously need to get out of town—and take The Commedia Rapunzel with them. And that’s not a bad thing. Columbia Children’s Theatre should take this hair-raising (or rather, lowering) show on the Commedia dell’Arte road, and see if they can pull a Muppets Movie and make their way to writer-director Sam LaFrage’s transplant home with that little street you may have heard of, called Broadway. The Commedia Rapunzel is the funniest play I have seen in years. If you don’t believe me, just ask the dozen or so adults who nearly passed out from laughter by the end of Friday night’s opening performance. Of course, children will be asking their parents for weeks why they laughed so hard about lines about Judge Judy, Julie Taymor and Jennifer Tilly. On the way home this evening, I started to explain to my daughter, Kat, about the opening scene from a faux production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then thought better of it. I told her that the scene was mostly a joke for the adults, and, yes, that was lemonade Martha kept throwing in George’s face.
The veteran pasta players, which include the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Stepp, along with Bobby Bloom, Paul Lindley II and Beth DeHart, have become such a well-virgin-olive-oiled machine that Columbia residents are experiencing one of those moments that occur once in a generation in a community: when a group of inspired artists have been together long enough to click on all cylinders and deliver high-performance aesthetics. I’m not sure we can call the Spaghetti and Meatball Players an artist’s circle so much as a dramatic dumpling. But the results are just as satisfying.
LaFrage rightly describes Commedia dell’Arte as allusional theatre. In this second of his Columbia “princess plays” (last year was The Commedia Cinderella), he has taken the art of the allusion to the outer limits of dramatic writing. It is as if he has figured out a way to freebase Cap'n Crunch, and share it harmlessly with children. For minutes on end, jokes from one end of the pop culture spectrum to the other fly at the audience in Gatling gun fashion, with many yuks sailing straight over the heads of children audience members, yet plenty landing squarely all the same, and with enough rubber chicken and Scooby Doo/Keystone Cops chase scenes to make up for the rest.
As alluded above, take a moment before the show to tell your children that this production will bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tangled, or to any other semi-faithful production of the classic fairy tale of Rapunzel (which one of the Meatballers tells us is German for “corn salad”). Eventually the story will wend its way to a damsel with distressed hair locked away in a tower by a surrogate mother witch with a penchant for organic farming and small business entrepreneurship, played with spot-on, quirky compassionate conjuring by Beth DeHart (Carolyn Chalfant will alternate in this role.) Only the title damsel, played by Elizabeth Stepp (whose comic acting really deserves notice by some producer at Nickelodeon) has a singing voice akin to one of those epic fail American Idol teens—and for a few moments, the audience doesn’t feel too terribly bad about her predicament.
Bobby Bloom keeps the zaniness from descending into total abandon with multiple roles, including especially the Commedia narrator Pantalone. He also nails the part of Prince Prometheus Phoo-Phoo Something-or-Other II, who, clad in Viking helmet and Japanese smoking jacket, settles in the end for a date night at Red Lobster with Rapunzel—which must be the 21st-century version of “happily ever after.” Paul Lindley II and LaFrage team up in several dynamic duo roles, including two Glee-inspired snobby Mockingbirds, and the outrageously redneck Baker and Baker’s Wife. And Ashlyn Combs is a great masked transition player in addition to her surprise “bet your bottom dollar” appearance.
As for technical accolades, LaFrage perhaps deserves even more credit for his sound design than writing; I cannot imagine how many painstaking hours he and Stage Manager/Sound Technician Erin Huiett must have spent producing dozens of perfectly timed audio gimmicks. Last but not least, while the set design is lean (though the show is pleasingly prop heavy), I kept looking at the patchwork of appropriately-ragtag fabric that adorned the set, wondering to myself with a smile whether they had stolen the material from my Aunt Helga’s bloomer drawer or from her curtains.
While there are a few moments that might frighten tiny tots—there’s no getting around the fact that Commedia masks are going to tiptoe into some little ones’ dreams—I just cannot recommend The Commedia Rapunzel enough. Columbia Children’s Theatre puts on great shows season after season, but they really have outdone themselves this time. I’m fairly sure I laughed even more than my daughter—I’m still rolling from the reference to NBC’s “the more you know” PSA's. (See CMT’s special adults-only date night performance on June 22!) But my daughter’s attention was held captive for the full hour and a half by the frenetic fireworks of LaFrage & Co. Still, though, I know it’s going to take me the better part of the weekend to explain why it was funny when one of the actors held up a placard of that great comic fallback Alf.
~ Arik Bjorn
And now: an exclusive Jasper interview with the cast!
The Cast of Rapunzel Lets Down Its Hair with Kat Bjorn
Kat Bjorn: Mr. Sam [LaFrage, the director], Mr. Jim [Litzinger, CCT Managing Director] said you are from Camden, South Carolina. Now you live in New York City, “the city that never sleeps.” What is the difference between the two cities?
Mr. Sam : Oh my, where do I begin? New York is much bigger! I think five families live in Camden. But it’s bigger than Lugoff. And there’s lots of theatre in New York.
KB: Mr. Sam, Mr. Jerry [Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director, and portrayer of the character Toad on stage] said he directed you when you were in 8th grade. Did he dress like Toad back then too?
Mr. SAM: [silence.] Um, no. I don’t think so. He cast me as Willy Wonka.
KB: Can you spell Commedia dell’Arte?
Entire Cast: C-O-M-M-E-D-I-A D-E-L A-R-T-E.
KB: Two L’s! You forgot the other L!
Mr. Bobby: Yes, but it’s pronounced Arté. Ar-tay.
[Kat’s Papa mentally plans a later home lesson on Italian vowel pronunciation.]
KB: What is Commedia dell’Arte?
Mr. SAM: It’s a type of theatre in Italy that started in the street. Very physical comedy. And it was one of the first times that girls were allowed to be in plays.
KB: Mr. Sam, why did you write a play about Rapunzel?
Mr. SAM: Mr. Jim and Mr. Jerry selected the play and asked me to write it. I really enjoyed it. But it’s a weird fairy tale. I mean, a girl gets locked up in a tower!
KB: Mr. Sam, you have written two plays in Columbia now about princesses. Who is your favorite princess and why?
Mr. SAM: The Little Mermaid.
KB: [jumps up and down] That’s my favorite princess too!
Ms. Elizabeth: Mine was always Snow White. We were both brunettes and pale.
KB: Yeah, but what about the apple?
[Cast thinks deep thoughts about this.]
KB: What is Rapunzel’s hair made out of?
Ms. Elizabeth: Weave. Horse hair.
KB: That’s what my Papa said, but I didn’t believe him.
Papa: See! Sometimes I’m right.
KB: How come in these kind of plays the actors talk to the kids, but not in some of the other plays at Mr. Jim and Mr. Jerry’s theatre?
Mr. Bobby: [provides long exposition on the history of the fourth wall in dramatic form.]
Mr. Sam: Actually—
[Mesmerized by Mr. Bobby’s disquisition, KB motions to Mr. Sam to zip his mouth.]
KB: Rapunzel, in real life, what is the worst thing that ever happened to your hair?
Ms. Elizabeth: I had long hair past my bottom when I was your age. One night I fell asleep next to a rolly brush, and it got all caught up in my hair. It took my aunt hours to undo it.
KB: Ms. Elizabeth, if you take off your Rapunzel wig, will your hair be long like mine, short like Mr. Sam’s the director, or bald like my Papa’s?
[Ms. Elizabeth removes her wig and lets down her long hair. KB and Cast climb it and exit stage left.]
Rapunzel runs June 14-23 with performances at the following dates and time: Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 15 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 16 at 3 p.m.; Friday, June 21 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, June 22 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; and Sunday, June 23 at 3 p.m. (Saturday, June 22 is a Special Late Night Date Night for adult kids at heart beginning at 9:00 p.m. Doors open at 8:00.) There will also be three special matinee performances for kids and adults on Thursday, June 27; Friday, June 28; and Thursday, July 18 at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $8 for adult and children 3 and up. The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive). Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access. Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more. To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .