Monday, May 11, 2009

WHT's Wizrd of Oz

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I found myself in a nearly sold-out Alchemist Theatre last night. It was the first of two performances of Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre’s Wizard of Oz spoof. Checking things out online, I couldn’t help but notice that both performances of the show (there’s one next week Sunday as well) were more or less sold out. At last glance, there were only a few seats left on next week’s performance. It’s nice to know that in this economy, light comedy that plays like a really elaborate staged reading can sell out a space like the Alchemist for two performances.

The premise behind a Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre show is a lot of fun—a group of stage actors play a group of voice actors from the golden age of live radio. The comedy plays out on two levels as there is comedy in the interactions between the voice actors AND comedy in the familiar story that’s being skewed for the fictional airwaves of Radio WHT. (Radio what? Exactly . . . )

The Wizard of Oz spoof doesn’t have quite as much comedic bite as the Sherlock Holmes spoof that WHT did a little while ago, but it’s still a great deal of fun. The actors milling about in the bar before the show are all a bit concerned about precisely who is going to be playing the cow . . . a bit odd considering this is the Wizard of Oz. . . meanwhile, actor Jack Farwell (Randall T. Anderson) is inside the theatre talking with the sound effects guy, Chris Knapp (Charles Sommers, who also wrote the show.) Chris seems a bit out of place not having any water to work with—he’s always had water sound effects to work with before, but there’s nothing here . . .

The spoof itself goes for some pretty easy jokes with the classic tale. Quite a few jokes skew in the direction of Wisconsin. Dorothy (played by Lorilyn Layton, who is, in turn, played by Rachelravenlilysophia,) is from Oshkosh. Rahter than having a pet dog, she ahs a pet cow. The yellow brick road is actually green and gold. The very best of the local skewing humor has to be The beginning of the story, in which Oshkosh is described as being very grey . . . a reference to the movie, but anyone who has been in Oshkosh can attest to it being a relatively grey place . . . which makes for clever humor.

The cow ends up being played in turn by three different guys who would rather NOT be playing the cow . . .  a fun little bit of humor as each of them has his own little spin in it . . . but none of them manage to deliver the kind of personality it should have . . . there’s a lot you can do with the sound of a moo and the clanking of a bell and none of them really realize this, which is only a small detail . . .

Char Paulbicke continues to be fun to watch in the role of Mary Loomis. She’s got a constantly nervous kind of compassion about the show that never seems to get tiresome. She’s got a really unique kind of comedic stage presence that gives WHT a very distinctive feel. Also making a performance of note here is Tim Higgins makes his debut here as Ward Greeley, who plays the Metal Man--a particularly compassionless Tin Man. Randall T. Anderson had an interesting moment as well—he’s playing the Gate Tender at the emerald city—and the voice he was doing sounded particularly fmilliar, but I couldn’t quite place it until a couple of hours after the show—he’s doing a Paul Lynde impression. It may not have been Anderson’s intention to do Lynde as the gate tender, but it’s pretty exact. Intended or not, it’s an almost uncanny impression of the 60’s TV actor.

There are a couple of moments here that are worth the  $10 admission. One of them is the spoof on the flying monkeys, which may not be "laugh out loud" funny, but holds a remarkable amount of idiosyncratic charm. The other is Jim Owczarski as Ira Hampton in the role of the Wizard . . . easily the cleverest bit in the entire program. Speaking in character as the Wizard, Owczarski speaks through a megaphone that is just big enough to obscure his entire face. The effect is extremely funny, particularly with Owczarski’s timing, which makes startlingly clever use of dramatic pauses . . . very subtle, but very, very funny.

Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre’s
May 17th performance of the Wizard of Oz is already sold-out. This is the last show WHT has scheduled for now, but with two sell-out performances, there’s a good chance WHT will return again soon . . .

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