Cross-Dressing With Boris
Can Men in Drag Ever Get Old? Not at the Hasty Pudding
A Tsar Is Born
by Mark Baskin and Jason Cooper
directed by Tony Stimac
at the Hasty Pudding Theater
Ron Weiner has an answer for those who wonder why all the parts in the annual Hasty Pudding show are played by men.
"William Shakespeare is the finest author in the English language," notes the Dunster House senior who composed the music for Hasty Pudding Theatricals 147, A Tsar is Born. "The original performances of Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and countless other classic Shakespearen texts featured exclusively male casts. This dynamic was integral to the theatrical tradition in the time of the great William Shakespeare, and it remains so today. What is my point? Simply that HPT 147 was written by William Shakespeare."
Okay, so Weiner makes a much better composer than he does a historian. But if his version of the Pudding's origin is a load of hooey, his larger point remains valid: the Pudding show is steeped in tradition.
Now, traditions are all well and good, especially at a place like Harvard. But they can have a down side. Those who aren't clued in to the tradition may not quite understand what's going on.
Fear not. Here's a quick guide to the Pudding's top traditions:
1. The show is most famous as the world's oldest continuing cross-dressing musical comedy.
2. Puns. The show has lots of them. All the characters' names are puns. Much of the dialogue is punny. Often, even the title is a pun. (In 1989, the show was called Whiskey Business. Two years ago, it was Romancing the Throne. This year it's A Tsar is Born. You get the idea.) Every show contains a pun on the words "Hasty Pudding," as well as a "punrun"--a run of puns on one theme.
3. The show always includes one derogatory joke about Yale and one about Wellesley.
4. The show's penultimate song is a torch song.
5. The show ends with a kickline.
Even this review is a tradition of sorts. Every year, the Pudding show is reviewed by The Crimson's outgoing Editorial Chair. (This last tradition persists in spite of the fact that the Ed Chair may: a) Not know much about theater; b) Not know much about writing theater reviews; c) Never have seen a Pudding show before; or d) All of the above. Hint: the answer this year is d.)
This year's Pudding show maintains the Pudding's traditions without becoming stale (though, by the time you're finished reading this review, you may not say the same about The Crimson's traditions). Plus, now that we've reviewed those traditions, you'll be able to appreciate all the jokes.
This year's show, A Tsar is Born, was co-authored by Mark Baskin, a Dunster House senior, and Jason Cooper, a junior from Kirkland House. Baskin and Cooper met two years ago, when both were in the cast of Romancing the Throne.
The plot they devised is set in the early 19th century, in the Russian town of Undergrad, a suburb of Moscow. Undergrad's residents--Undergraduates, naturally--are peasants. Beet farmers. Male beet farmers. And therein lies the town's problem. Among its entire population, there is but one woman: Katya Ballzov, a homely, hapless matchmaker.
Why is Undergrad so inhospitable to the fairer sex? Perhaps the trouble lies in the Undergraduates' approach, exemplified by Boris Alltodeath, a leading resident of the town. Mr. Alltodeath invites Ms. Ballzov on a date by asking, "How about coming back to my place and beating my sword into a plowshare?"
Lonely as they are, however, the men seem resigned to their fate, reading copies of Playserf when they get bored. Enter plot twist number one: the bad guy. Sir Noble Meltdown, the evil town magistrate, arrives bearing an order he says is from the Tsar: All unmarried Undergraduates must leave their homes within 24 hours or face the penalty of death.
Lord Meltdown has an evil plan of his own: to take over Undergrad and build a giant, profit-making electrical plant--the Sir Noble Power Plant--in its place.
Shocked out of their complacency, the Undergraduates resolve to find brides. Enter plot twist number two: a French invasion. Sir Meltdown's plans are jeopardized when the 69th special division of Napoleon's Continental Army attacks Undergrad.
Enter plot twist number three: mutiny. With the exception of its commander, General Guy Atine, the 69th special division is composed exclusively of women (hence, its motto: "Muscle, Skill, Cleavage"). Led by Private FiFi Fifofum, the women overthrow General Atine, prompting him to join forces with Sir Meltdown.
The Undergraduates retreat to the local pub, the Serf'n Turf, to regroup. There, Sasha Nidiot (a Cliff Clavin parody played by Nick Gordon '95), informs us that it's nice to be where everybody knows your name. And we learn that Dusty Yevsky, a local cowboy and poet, has a crush on a singing cow, Bess Western ("But soft," Mr. Yevsky exclaims passionately, "what light from yonder bovine breaks." Sadly, Ms. Western has her doubts. "I don't feel right dating someone who's higher up on the food chain," she demurs.)
Eventually, Mr. Alltodeath has an insight: "The way I see it," he says, "we have 23 hours and nine minutes to find wives, and a group of French women has just entered our town."
From this point, it's pretty clear where the plot is headed. Just two major twists remain. First, we learn that the Tsar has been comatose for six months, leaving his wife, the power-hungry feminist Empress Uponyou, in charge of the country. (The Empress is an early version of a two-career woman, running Russia while caring for her daughter, the bratty, psychopathic Princess Ivanna Tention.)
Second, Sir Meltdown is in love with his chief scientist, Dr. Sara Bellum, who is supposed to design his nuclear power plant. But Dr. Bellum annoys her boss by using her time and his money to invent a brain transfer machine which she tries out occasionally on her hunchbacked assistant, Igor Beaver.
Sound complicated? That's just the first act.
The script provides a perfect framework for some winning one-liners. There is, for example, some insightful commentary from Ms. Ballzov. "When you've been sucking on the lemon of life as long as I have," she notes, "sometimes you have to pucker up and kiss it on the tuchus."
There are scores of cheesy puns, including Sasha Nidiot's advice as the Undergraduates head into battle with the ladies of the 69th: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their thighs." And there is, of course, some bawdy locker-room humor, including the comment that "you give a man an inch, and he'll want to give you eight."
Even the worst jokes, though, are carried off brilliantly by the cast. Several members are especially deserving of praise. Hasty Pudding Vice President Aaron Zelman '95, who plays Ms. Western, makes a convincing cow. He sings a stirring and hysterical medley of songs, ranging from "It had to be moo," through "Like a bovine, milked for the very first time," to "USDA" (the latter sung to the tune of the Village People's "YMCA").
J. Steven Schardt '95 plays Dusty Yevsky with passion, particularly when he promises Ms. Western that "I won't let them sell you by the pound." Daren Firestone '96 is truly insane as Estelle Crazy, a lunatic member of the 69th Special Division who goes around quoting old movies and Academy Award presentations. And first-year Danton Char turns in an impressive performance as the deformed Mr. Beaver.
Without question, through, the show's big winner was Bart St. Clair '93, who played Private Fifi Fifofum. St. Clair was hilarious, despite the fact that he was a last-minute replacement for a laryngitis-stricken David Travis '95 and only received the script the day before the first performance.
Of course, lest I get carried away with praise, it's worth noting that the Pudding show isn't for everyone. I am reminded of the words of one of my predecessors, former Crimson Editorial Chair Michael R. Grunwald '93.
"You don't go to the annual Hasty Pudding Theatricals production to see gut-wrenching drama or incisive social commentary," Grunwald wrote on this page three years ago. "You don't go to see professional acting, professional singing, professional dancing. You don't go to see a plot. You go to the Pudding show to see just that--a show. A spectacle. Big, hairy guys wearing skimpy dresses, disguising their husky voices, wiggling their butts, behaving like goofballs, inverting the social order."
He was right. And if that's what you're looking for, then this year's Hasty Pudding show delivers. Weiner may be wrong--it may not be Shakespeare. But it is fun. I give it four tsars.
Stephen E. Frank '95 was The Crimson's Editorial Chair in 1994.