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Howard Sherman: There’s an eager audience for smart theatrical parodies

David Carl and Brian Fiddyment in Face/Off at Brooklyn's Cage in the Park festival. Photo: Howard Sherman
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The deranged eccentricity of the premise demanded attention: a stage version of the 1997 action film Face/Off, starring Nic Cage and John Travolta. It was part of the inaugural Cage in the Park summer festival, a corollary to the Public Theater’s long-running seasons of Shakespeare in the Park.

Mounted for two free performances in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Face/Off wasn’t merely an attempt to adapt the film’s visual pyrotechnics and ludicrous plot for live performance. It did so while transmuting the story into something that vaguely echoed iambic pentameter and moved the setting to ancient Rome. The interpolated character of the film’s director, John Woo, was essentially playing the part of the Chorus.

This was, of course, a parody, the invention of two writers for television’s The Daily Show: Zach DiLanzo and Sebastian DiNatale. Enjoyment of the comedy no doubt correlates with yours familiarity with the original film (I confess, shamefacedly, to multiple viewings, as a Woo fan from his Hong Kong cinema days). Some 400 people turned up in total.

The shrewd buffoonery prompted thoughts about where parody stands these days in the theatre, and I feel it is probably most common in low-stakes, fringe-style productions such as Face/Off. Going back half a dozen years, I fondly recall a fringe production called Pulp Shakespeare, which rendered Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in rather rigorous verse, with much of its humour arising from the clash between the language and the plot. Another is Our Town Plus Zombies, which is playing at the Washington DC Fringe.

Parody on Broadway is rather rarer, though not unheard of, even in these days of escalating capitalisations. The 2016 musical Disaster! took on most directly The Poseidon Adventure, along with the many disaster films that followed in its wake in the 1970s. In 2007, Xanadu targeted the flop film of the same name, using its own ludicrous plot against it, while making the most of songs associated with Olivia Newton John and the Electric Light Orchestra – a sudden second act shift into the original Clash of the Titans film gave audiences who got the references even more bang for their buck. Likewise, The 39 Steps succeeded in spoofing its Hitchcockian source material, while earning credits for its breakneck staging and the versatility of its company.

With the recent passing of Mad Magazine, a parodic touchstone of American humour aimed at young readers that began in the 1950s and outlived its college-targeted progeny The National Lampoon, one has to wonder about the place of parody today. It was a staple of television dating back to Sid Caesar and Milton Berle in the 1950s and succeeded by Carol Burnett and the sitcom Get Smart in the 1960s. Sketch comedy shows carry on the tradition for increasingly fragmented audiences, with the now ended Key and Peele having proved particularly adept, often merging social commentary with its homages.

Having previously decried stage shows that seem to call themselves parodies largely to capitalise on the popularity of the original source, I’m not suggesting a parodic theatrical free-for-all, but instead thinking that as film parodies have been strip-mined and abandoned, perhaps there’s a place for smart, knowing theatrical parodies that land somewhere between Broadway spectacle and cobbled-together fringe. The Harry Potter parody/homage Puffs is evidence that there is an audience, as are the many offerings from my pals at the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

As for comically rendering pop culture into scripts bearing some resemblance to Shakespeare? Well that was something deployed on multiple occasions by Mad. More recently that was the basis for Ian Doescher’s reframed Star Wars texts, including The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return, which regrettably are not able to be licensed for actual production. But just think, perhaps Shakespearean parody will serve to familiarise audiences with the rhythms of the Bard. And that, methinks, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Howard Sherman: Do parodies like a rock musical of Game of Thrones risk burning out the genre?

This week in US theatre

While Joe Iconis’ Be More Chill is wrapping up its Broadway run, his newest musical Broadway Bounty Hunter – inspired by 1970s Blaxploitation movies – is gearing up Off-Broadway, opening Tuesday at Greenwich House Theatre. Annie Golden plays the title role in this genre spoof, on which composer-lyricist Iconis shares book-writing credit with Lance Rubin and Jason ‘Sweettooth’ Williams. Jennifer Werner directs and choreographs.

Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! jumps off the screen and into Broadway’s Hirschfeld Theatre for a Thursday opening, with some newly interpolated songs, a book by John Logan, choreography by Sonya Tayeh, and directed by Alex Timbers. Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit and Danny Burstein lead the cast.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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