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FEW ACTS COULD successfully follow Sly Stallone's chugging three raw eggs with any aplomb. On a traditionally glitter-filled evening, the offstage drama threatened to overshadow the actual production at the Hasty Pudding.
But against formidable odds, the onstage show seemed not only to win the attention of the raucous and inebriated crowd, but actually to knock its socks off.
From the moment the curtain rose last night on the Theatricals's 138th annual production, "Between the Sheiks," the audience easily forgot the offstage drama surrounding their Man of the Year, and happily warmed to the hot desert sun of Solong, Abyssinia.
And as soon as the curtain lifts halfway to reveal three sequined bellies gyrating to an Arabian beat, we know we're not in Kansas anymore.
We soon discover, along with the two unemployed concubines who are more or less tourguides for the show, that this is no ordinary spot. It's a sandswept, burning wasteland, oozing with mysterious "black goop." Everyone's concerned only to avoid the heat, and our luckless heroines, Alma Lovin (Brian Kenet) and Gwen Myway (David Nacht) can't even sell their experienced bodies. It's "Just deserts...In the land that God forgot/It's too darn hot."
Well, Gwen and Alma find a taker--the overripe harem head, Celia Lips (Ty Christopher Warren), who's constantly looking for new blood with which to tempt the timid Sultan Battery the Ever-Ready (Jon Tolins), who's got, well, women problems.
Seems the situation in Solong is rather precarious, what with the Sultan fainting at the sight of women, and thus not likely to perpetuate his accidental reign, and his evil Grand Vizier Ahab Younow (Nicholas Weir) lusting for his position.
It takes more than a little coaxing to make the shy Sultan appear. He's a neurotic misanthrope after Woody Allen's heart. Even the Sultan's charmingly innocent daughter, Dahlia Prayer (Steve Lyne), is too frightening for him. The dippy Dahlia dances in with a string of cutout paper dolls, ecstatic at the sight of Alma and Gwen, whom she's already pegged as playmates. Maybe they can even talk about boys, whom she's never seen. "Do they really have horrible steel buzz-saw blades in their pants, like Daddy told me?" she asks.
Having decided to "make plans, brew the tea, buy pajamas with little feet" and "decorate the room--it'll be keen!" she skips blithely offstage, begging for the next line.
"WELLESLEY!" sneers the cast, taking care of the obligatory spear of nearby women's colleges and reminding us that this is, first and foremost, a Pudding show.
And Pudding shows would be nothing without punning and plotting. To the audience's delight, there's plenty of both for the better part of three hours as "Between the Sheiks" unfolds.
As Dahlia and the other women fail to rouse the faint-hearted Sultan, his situation looks grim. The evil Ahab Younow, backed by his maniacal mercenary Moslem bodyguard, Mecca Myday (Robert McManus), is poised for action. Mecca's not a bad ally to have: "I eat armies for breakfast. I drink blood. I snack on glands." (He's not about to ask any superiors if we can win next time.)
Ahab's chance comes in the unlikely meeting of medieval East and West, the cosmic collision of a band of luckless crusaders from oh-so-civilized Britain with the exotic chaos of Solong.
BACK IN the "civilized world," where women wear chastity belts and men rarely use the keys, this group of bored, adventure-seekers is getting ready for the big Game--well, actually for some bloodshed. Truth be told, the main force behind the crusade is the mercenary and bloodthirsty Countess Interruptus (Zak Klobucher), who reads Soldier of Fortune and has all the men cowering. The appearance of this motley band is one of the funniest scenes in the show. Dressed like red-white-and-black chess pieces, they march down the aisles singing
Domine est requiem
Veritas ad nauseum
Non sequitur, Amen...
Ex libris cabot hilles
Cloris Leachman stars in phyllis
Non sequitur Amen
The unlikely bunch consists of the Countess and her husband, Count Yerblessings (Ron Duvernay) and their liege Sir Vance Entrance (David Chase, who also wrote the rollicking score) and his wife Rhea Entrance (Adrian Blake). Plus their two ill-matched offspring, engaged to be married: Chrysler le Baron (Erick Neher) and Ethel Alcohol (George Zlupko). Chrysler, to put it mildly, is a disappointment to his amazon mother. And even his father gets exasperated with his poetry spouting and inability to dig warfare: "Chrysler, why can't you be more like Rambo?" Ethel's not much help. She's busy with her rather healthy appetitite.
Having established themselves as utterly clueless, this oddball crew proceeds to deliver a rousing number, in which they equate the whole operation with a religious football game. ("We're special-teamin' for the Lord...") Their energetic pep-rally-cum-war-anthem is the production's first real show-stopper.
And they're off. Destinies will clash. Conflicts, romances, and plot-torturing absurdities will abound.
YET ELSEWHERE, somewhere in the desert wasteland outside Solong, the wandering Prophet Motive (Leonard Dick) and his hapless sidekick Ahmed A'Boubou (Jeffrey Korn) are way ahead of their time, preaching the good 20th century values of capitalism and personal repression. Dick's enormous birdnest of a white wig and his well-developed evangelistic twang are all-too-familiar and consequently quite effective. Their energetic duet, "Moral Hygiene," is yet another showstopper.
When Ahmed discovers a golden lamp inhabited by a strange female personage, Abby Cadabra (Mark Meredith), the cast is complete. When the trio stumbles unwittingly upon the town of Solong, shortly before the football-crazed but directionless crusaders arrive, the melee begins. Destinies have clashed.
It's time for the Grand Themes of the evening to entangle themselves. East meets West. The lure of capitalism--in the promising form of the "black goop" everywhere--overtakes a sleepy, sandy desert town. Strong women dominate wimpy sniveling men amid chastity belts and harem-slaves. The Church meets the heathens. Everyone falls in love.
And it all happens, naturally, in true Pudding fashion.
This means, for the benefit of the great unwashed who have never seen a Pudding show, that every slice of dialogue is a self-transcending attempt at stupider jokes than the ones before. And the authors have outdone themselves this year. Whether it's the Bible, Consumer Reports, or the game-show circuit, Jess Bravin and Peter Sagal have plumbed the depths of Americana, Harvardiana, banality and even hallowed Tradition to create some of the longest strings of groan-inducing one-liners in history.
Which is not to say the audience doesn't eat it up--provided they're sober enough to follow. This is the stuff of which Pudding shows are made. What "Between the Sheiks" has also got, though, is a collection of uniformly well-developed characters: there are virtually no stars (as written), and yet almost everyone has a chance to shine.
The evil Countess Interruptus (Klobucher), for example, not only mugs and sneers hilariously, but shows off the best legs in the production (and does some impressive things with them), earning the envy of any woman in her right mind.
Both Korn and Meredith (Ahmed and Abby) have exceptionally rich voices and loads of stage presence. Korn plays a soulful and winsome part, and Meredith vamps relentlessly, steaming up the stage as a veiled-and-sequined cross between Madonna and Bette Midler. Warren, too, as the lovelorn Celia, belts out a show-stopping number to her old flame, Ahab, begging him not to make her retire ("Don't Veil Me Now").
But it may be too late. For Ahab is plotting with his free-market cohorts, the sultan is distracted, and the profit motive looms large in Abyssinia. At the end of the first act (which runs for a marathon 90 minutes), cliff-hanging questions remain: will capitalism turn the sandy Solong into an OPEC nightmare? Will the big-hearted Celia Lips be able to stop the evil Ahab and his mercenary fling, the Countess? Will the Sultan ever discover his own hormones? And will the overfed Ethel land a job with the Chicago defense?
AFTER AN interminable intermission, the drunken crowds are corraled back into the theatre. It would take a Richter-shaking song to wake this bunch. Wisely, Bravin, Chase, and Sagal have placed "Solong, Forever" where it is. Easily the most rousing number in the show, it's a stirring an-them to profit and sleaze.
The sets, particularly in the second act, underline the comic-book nature of this zany saga. In Technicolor orange and black, Solong has become a blazing, windswept, oil-spattered wasteland of a desert, worthy of Sam Shepard. Designer David Sumner has done an equally masterful job with the romantic starry skies and the eastern spires of the sultan's estate.
And the costumes, be they the nauseous green-orange-pink-yellow gauze of the harem or the chessboard getups of the crusaders, are wonderfully accurate and silly as well.
But it's the actors that steal the show. Consistently well-developed as characters--from Alma and Gwen to Abby--they also create a first-rate ensemble. Given a head start with a richly diverse score by Davity Chase--who provides everything from Arab theme music to fight-song melodies to torchy jazz with consistent finesse--and staging and choreography that are energetic but simple but enough to handle (usually) with grace and flair they take the ball and run with it.
ALTHOUGH MORE one-liners are calculated to fall flat than to reverberate, and although the "graceful" dance numbers are predictably gawky and clumsy (in "true Pudding fashion"), "Between the Sheiks" is one of the most spirited and colorful shows in recent Pudding memory. And the range of talent carries it headlong through three hours of nonstop silliness. It's not just "too hot" in Solong--it sizzles.
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