TRULY enjoyable amateur theater can be refreshing to a jaded and world-weary soul. The right combination of funny lines and a troupe of willing hambones very often delight where pretensions to Polish and sophistication fail to entertain. A successful House show need be nothing more than unpretentious good fun and Winthrop House's production of two one-act plays comes very close to that elusive ideal.
If you go to A Phoenix Too Frequent and God expecting to see Harvard's latest answer to Broadway you will be disappointed. You will also miss the point. Sure the set probably cost less than 50 bucks, and yes the costumes are old sheets, and maybe these plays are to serious drama what whoopee cushions are to a History and Lit tutors' sherry, but they're all also damn funny and you'd have to be a stuffed shirt not to relax and enjoy.
Christopher Fry's A Phoenix Too Frequent, which heads the double bill, is a broad satire of the Antigone vein of Greek tragedy. There are only three characters: Dynamane, a recently widowed noblewoman who has decided to die from starvation in her late husband's tomb; Doto, her feeble-witted and man-hungry servant who has decided to die from physical and sexual starvation with her mistress; and Tegeus, or as he is called by Dynamane, Cromus, a steedly Hoplite who blunders into the whole affair and falls in love with Dynamane. Using this simple plot and character framework, Fry works much mischief on the classical tragic genre with overblown and thoroughly ludicrous speeches on honor, fate, love and life. His parodies of Greek tragic conventions sometimes tend to be either too subtle or too overdone but in general the play keeps up a lively pace, largely because Fry knows that words like "come" get a laugh--legitimate or not--if they are repeated suggestively throughout the script.
The Winthrop players do take a little while to warm up to their roles and the first few minutes of the play are a mite slow, but from the time Cromus (Mathew Gatson) appears the pace picks up, the rude puns start flying and everyone starts to loosen up. Julie Martz and Amy Gould as Doto and Dynamane have some nice moments together as they steadily abandon their resolve to die for "Master" and start appreciating the reasons to live presented by the hunky soldier boy. Gatson plays the philosophical guard charmingly, acting like a guy on his first date who isn't sure when to shut up and just kiss the woman. His flowery lines are delivered in a soft Southern accent which makes them seem all the more incongruous and funny.
Director David Montgomery allows Fry's witty script to carry much of the humor by having his actors deadpan as if they were indeed acting in Antigone. But no one was fooled, and the audience groaned and howled as if cued by the double entendres and pompous orations. The combination of a good script and a willing if not polished cast make for an enjoyable hour.
BUT THE BEST was yet to come in the form of Woody Allen's outrageous farce, God, also a spoof of Greek tragedy. In contrast to the small cast in Phoenix, God has a cast of thousands including people planted in the audience, characters out of Tennesee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, several playwrights and Allen himself (an offstage voice, don't get too excited). If Phoenix is a bit unsubtle, God is a bull rhino in a package store. A more insane play could hardly be imagined.
Presented with such a golden opportunity to go wild, only a troupe of embalmed corpses could fail to entertain, and the Winthrop players rise to the challenge with unabashed enthusiasm. Mike Herrmann as the out-of-work actor Diabetes, and George Melrod as Hepatitis both look uncannily like Groucho Marx and play their urban-Jewish-intellectual-neurotic characters to the hilt. Meanwhile, the supporting cast, led by the gum-cracking, orgasm-seeking Phil major from Brooklyn College and Great Neck, Doris Levine (played nicely by Jaleh Poorooshasb), camps and hams through Allen's inspired lunacy. Every new character who walks onstage builds the madness to a higher pitch until the whole stage explodes in a riot of screaming neurotics. Particularly funny among the crowds of people who come on stage are David Margolin and Bonnie Freid as the Fates, Bob and Wendy; the chorus of Rich Buck and Andy Pugh, and Tom Saunders as Lorenzo Miller, who, in a wonderful game-show-host croon, tells the audience that they are only characters in his play. "Not only is he fictional," he says of one man, "he's homosexual." Even characters who speak only a few lines play their parts with heart and help produce a show that is about as lightheartedly entertaining as theater can get.
Saying that the Winthrop House one-acts are enjoyable amateur productions may sound like faint praise, but it really isn't. No one was pretending to be anything they weren't and everyone in the place had a good time. In this case that means success. Which means if you need a good laugh and have had enough deep meaning for one week, go see God die at Winthrop.