The problem with the classics is that there’s only so many to go around. Eventually fans of any style of theater will have seen them all. Performers, directors, and producers will run out of old scripts to produce, and they ain’t makin’ ’em like they used to. Or ARE THEY? Johnna Adams has written a play set in the Napoleonic era, and in the style of a Restoration comedy. Three court parasites find themselves out of favor with the Danish prince and must wander about Europe, engaging in witty wordplay with sharp-tongued ladies, whilst spouting verse at every step.
Nat Cassidy plays Grundtvig, a scheming “Go-Between” who is part middleman and part pimp. His associate Paars (Sean Williams) is a “Lickspittle”, a professional flatterer, seducer, and ass-kisser. Stub (Aaron Michael Zook) is a “Buttonholer” who can expound endlessly on any topic while still saying nothing of substance.
At the start of the show, the three of them are ceremoniously kicked out of Copenhagen’s palace. Each of them alone is powerless, but they believe that by pooling their talents they can concoct a scheme to get back in the Prince’s good graces.
The actual plot isn’t particularly important, though. Most of the show involves a series of loosely connected scenes that send these three stooges around the world encountering adventures and situations that change entirely every twenty minutes or so. In one scene they’re trying to seduce a virtuous young woman, later they are chasing French jewel thieves, and before the end of the First Act they’re piloting a heretofore-unmentioned steampunk flying machine across the English Channel.
The moment-by-moment use of language is the real draw for this show. Adams’ script is written in glorious, complex, rhyming verse. Adams even goes a step further by tailoring the style of verse to suit each character; when an Irishman speaks, it is in Limericks. A stuffy English Duke speaks only in Sonnets. One character delivers all of her lines in Sestinas, which becomes a recurring gag because the other characters must politely wait for her to finish all six stanzas before responding.
The dialog is a mouthful for any performer, but the cast is an exceptional group who live up to this lengthy and wordy show. The central trio of Cassidy, Williams and Zook, evoke the right combination of sympathy and disgust. These are charming yet reprehensible characters who aspire to be the best there is at their loathsome professions. Unfortunately for them, they find themselves up against three female rogues from France. This trio also consists of a lickspittle, a go-between, and a buttonholer, played by Catherine McNelis, Kelley Rae O’Donnell and Kristen Vaughn. The ladies are also up to the task of delivering Adams’ witty dialog. The six characters exchange verbal barbs, and try to one-up each other by demonstrating their skills at flattery, scheming, and yammering.
The supporting cast more than carries their own weight. Gavin Starr Kendall and Ridley Parson each play several roles, including the palace guards who serve as foils to the three schemers. Isaiah Tannenbaum affects an outrrrrageous French accent in the role of Napoleon, while Amy Lee Pearsall plays Empress Josephine and has the difficult job of playing the Sestina-spouting maid.
The costume design (By Holly Rihn with Meryl Pressman) is gorgeous. There are period costumes for a 10-person cast, and almost every performer changes outfits at least once during the show. The quantity and variety of the costumes is a tremendous accomplishment for an off-off-Broadway theater company.
The story does have a problem in that none of the characters are actually likeable. They are societal parasites, decadent royals, or backstabbing schemers who are always up to no good. A sudden revelation near the end provides some sympathy for one character, but audiences will have to root for the lesser evil on a scene-by-scene basis.
Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens will nonetheless delight audiences who appreciate wordplay and classical comedy. Despite the high-brow literary technique, it still remains accessible to audiences who have to take the playwright’s word for it that the Haiku have the right number of syllables.
Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens runs at Teatro Circulo in Manhattan until May 17th. Tickets and more can be found at boomerangtheatre.jimdo.com.