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Oedipussy — Curio Theatre Company

Oedipussy interior 2 The cast of Curio Theatre’s “Oedipussy” have a woeful lament.

They whine and complain and threaten to commit dire individual acts in a response to an event they find grievous beyond toleration.

This cast is not portraying a Greek chorus intoning the pity and terror they feel as they watch a great king cope with the realization he has killed his father and wedded and bedded his mother.

They bemoan their own calamity. A critic who remains unnamed, until Aetna Gallagher, with pinpoint timing — twice — mentions the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Toby Zinman, has written a scathing review of Curio’s “Macbeth,” in which she not only excoriates a spate of wretched acting and a bizarre interpretation but blasts the entire ensemble for being middle-aged, physically unfit, and generally not robust or talented enough to suit their parts.

These strokes are cruel and drive Paul Kuhn, Curio’s artistic director to announce they are enough to persuade him to leave acting and return to his one-time livelihood as a handyman who can attend to small plumbing and carpentry needs. He mentions to prospective customers that there are cards giving his contact information in the lobby.

Gallagher, Kuhn’s real-life sister, and Brian McCann, who will not mention his name, follow suit. Toby’s rant has demoralized them to the point they all intend to quit the theater after doing one last performance of a great classic, “Oedipus”  by Sophocles. Only Harry Slack, who announces in a chipper, hey-I’m-good-to-go fashion that he is age 24, less than half the age of the next oldest person in the cast, Kuhn, reports grinningly his intention to continue on the stage.

The quoted Zinman review is, amazingly, real. I thought it might be an invention of “Oedipussy’s” authors, Carl Grose and a quartet called Spymonkey, as adapted by Emma Rice to foment outrage and trigger the performers’ emotional response. But Toby really slammed Curio’s “Macbeth,” the review for which becomes, in “Oedipussy,” a launching pad for a variety of stories, some real, some fabricated, all snowballing into a naughy theater wag’s version of “Oedipus” laced with the angst-ridden torment of the maligned actors. Spiced by references to the actors’ actual lives and careers, some of which are embellished or furnished by Grose and company, Zinman’s calumnies lead to angry tirades, overtly expressed by Gallagher and Kuhn, held seethingly inside by McCann, that will inform the players’ approach to “Oedipus.” What follows is an often silly, frequently slapstick, always humorous, and sometimes rollicking production that spoofs Sophocles while giving Kuhn, Gallagher, and McCann more chances to grouse and sputter and Slack more chances to gloat and show up his relative youthfulness and enthusiasm.

“Oedipussy” comments well on Greek tragedy and on the plight of aging actors. During the course of director John Bellomo’s energetically gymnastic staging, Slack and the elders of “Oedipussy” climb rows of steep fixed, perpendicular ladders, perform many a somersault and tumble, pantomime sex and other bodily activities that require them to be limber and flexible, and run like madmen around Kuhn and Gallagher’s monkey bar — make that Spymonkey bar — of a set. McCann, Kuhn, and Gallagher soldier through their physical ordeals determined to refute Zinman’s negative accusations and show, even while they grimace and wince in pain, they are nimble enough and youthful enough to do anything required to make “Oedipus” a physical as well as a dramatic triumph. Slack and Gallagher even entwine themselves Cirque du Soleil-style in sheets that act as ropes and trapezes.

Curio’s “Oedipussy” is constantly funny, even when your groaning or grinning in a way that says, “Lord, what unbridled foolishness.” The spirit of farce takes over, and one can’t help admiring the British wit with which Rice endows “Oedipussy,” the brightness of Grose and Spymonkey’s spoof of “Oedipus,” or the doggedness with which Bellomo’s troupe goes through their exhausting and often lascivious paces in their effort to throw Zinman’s review back in Toby’s teeth.

Even when Bellomo’s production looks disjointed, slightly off-pace, or busy for busy’s sake, it keeps you happily amused. Your tongue may be firmly in your cheek with some laughs, and your eyes may roll in fine frenzy like those eyes Kuhn, via Spymonkey, designed for the Greek oracles to use while foretelling the fates of Oedipus and his father, Laius — eyes represented by large white beach balls with relatively small black pupils painted on them, at times used to play “keep it afloat” with the audience — but go with the flow, and you will be rewarded for your good sportsmanship and roundly entertained.

You may even be moved for a few seconds. Farcically though the “Oedipus” legend is played, the title character’s realization scene has some actual dramatic impact. McCann, as Oedipus, takes a moment to show his character’s revulsion and sorrow when Tiresias reports that, in spite of the precautions he, Laius, and Jocasta have taken, he, Oedipus, did kill his father and marry his mother.

Spymonkey is a British comedy ensemble that specializes in Monty Python-like lampoons and giving literal responses to figurative statements. Its members, Toby Park, Stephan Kreiss, Aitor Basauri, and Petra Massey, devised “Oedipussy” as an improvisation. Grose honed the work. Rice made a script out it. Bellomo and his Curio actors retained the improvisational spirit while sticking to Rice’s adaptation and doing a good job in the portions that call for them to give some personal information, even though most of that is also scripted. (I’m hoping, at least, that Gallagher does not have Grave’s Disease, a thyroid deficiency that creates pressure behind the eyes, and that McCann does not have an injured Achilles tendon, jokes about eyes and the name of a Greek hero being the perfect fodder for Spymonkey humor while working with a Greek tragedy such as “Oedipus.” The actors’ physical performances belie such maladies.)

“Oedipussy” divides its time neatly between providing a “fractured fairy tale” look at the “Oedipus” legend and giving the actors a chance to perform feats that fleer in the face of age, paunch, or uncooperative limbs and joints and whine about them. Sophocles takes it a bit on the chin, but students writing a term paper about “Oedipus” would get all they need to know about the classic from Grose’s send-up and Curio’s presentation of it.

The title of Grose’s play comes from the affection childhood name by which Oedipus’s adoptive parents in Corinth call him after the shepherd who finds the hobbled child put him in their care. It also has vague references to James Bond. The show starts with the cast singing a Shirley Bassey-type opening number and every now and then, someone will take the famous Bond stance in which the spy is standing with perfect posture holding a gun, pointed upward, next to his cheek.

Costume and commedia, a Bellomo specialty, combine to keep “Oedipussy” moving briskly and with the proper ridiculousness. Sight gags abound. Slack, playing shepherds who are cousins, wears a flowing wig of greasy looking black curls on his head while playing a Theban cousin and moves the raft of hair to his chest when playing his Corinthian counterpart. Kuhn, in several scenes, wears a two-foot high styrofoam Greek column on his head, for some reason Doric rather than Corinthian in design. Slack does a tap dance with two lifeless dolls attached to him on each side. All kinds of sexual maneuvers take place. Phalluses and breasts get equal play, and there is much miming of coitus. Slack in particular seems to like those scenes.

The references to the actors’ real lives take a funny cast when Kuhn reveals, that he, as artistic director, originally expected to play Oedipus, but deferred to McCann because Gallagher is his actual sister, and playing incest and having a kind of genuine incest, were too much to handle. Kuhn also tells a story about his childhood and for verification, asks Gallagher to confirm he is telling the truth. “That really happened, didn’t it, Aetna?” he asks. “Yes,” she screams from behind the set.

Of all the props, I loved the beach balls with eyes used to represent the oracles. Very clever of Spymonkey to invent and of Curio to appropriate.

The cast is uniformly good, but I give extra kudos to Brian McCann, whose early deadpan, hrrumph expressions at having to do some acrobatic deed, and unyielding sense of irony informs Bellomo’s production and takes it beyond silliness to comment.

McCann needed a part in which he could show his wit and flexibility. In Hedgerow’s “Macbeth,” Dan Hodge had him play an aged Macduff who walked with a cane and shot Macbeth from a distance rather than battling with him. The actor did his clumping up ungainly steps and fulfilled his part well, but he was a victim of strange direction and looked as stiff as Macduff’s allegedly lame leg did. (I will tell you, as a tale out of school, that even at Hedgerow, there are mixed reactions to giving McCann’s Macduff that cane.)

In “Mary Stuart,” also directed by Hodge, and excellently, McCann’s character, the dour Shrewsbury did not give the actor the opportunity to shine as his castmates, Nathan Foley and Joshua Kachnycz did. “Oedipussy” lets McCann demonstrate his full scope, and it’s a treat to see his consistent sense of irony and comic tone while he also conveys some of the seriousness of “Oedipus.”

The cast in general is aces, all of them letting loose and reveling in the madness Grose and Spymonkey provide and Bellomo encourages. Curio’s production may seem fast and ragged to audiences who were expecting fastidiousness that is really not part of “Oedipussy’s” zany, improvisational construction. Go for the laughs, and “Oedipussy” will please mightily.

“Oedipussy” runs through Saturday, May 27 at the Curio Theatre, 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-525-1350 or going online to www.curiotheatre.org.

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