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Custom Made Theatre’s production of “The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard” is credited as written by Plautus and adapted and directed by Evren Odcikin, from a translation by Deena Berg. In this case, many cooks do not spoil the broth. On the contrary, the author, translator, adaptor, director and cast have thrown in every comic chestnut but the proverbial kitchen sink, resulting in a torrential outpouring of audience laughter as the company runs the gamut of comedy in classic commedia del’arte style. Yes, of course I know that this play hails from ancient Rome, not Renaissance Italy, but don’t quibble. Plautus is the fount from which springs commedia, Shakespearean comedy, and even the modern sitcom.
Director Evren Odcikin displays a rare expertise in making the tried and true look new. He encourages his actors to pose and mug like wrestling stars while ensuring that the complicated plot is sufficiently clear, the actors don’t stumble, the timing is precise, and the audience relaxed enough to laugh with abandon.
Under his able hand, the cast members, too, are completely relaxed and appear to be having the time of their lives.
Kai Morrison as Major Blowhard blows hard indeed, prancing and preening and careening about like a hairy and egotistical ping pong ball. His blind certainty that he is universally admired, desired and adored is laughable, and Morrison makes sure we laugh. As the servant (and helpful master-of-ceremonies) Dexter, Alan Coyne displays the flexibility of Gumby (have I just dated myself too much?) while trying to out-mug Jim Carey, and damn near succeeding. Is this a man or a collection of bendable pipe cleaners? Matt Gunnison as a second servant, Haplus, clowns skillfully while maintaining a comical stone face that would do Buster Keaton proud. Derek Burkowski as Nautikles, Convivia’s fashion-challenged goofy love interest, captures the character’s clumsy appeal with sly humor.
As Convivia, Eden Neuendorf skewers the archetype of the ingénue with precision, and offers some of the show’s best physical comedy, squeezing herself through secret passageways to play her own twin so as to keep the major in the dark about Nautikles.
Does this make sense so far?
While the entire cast makes an excellent ensemble, I have saved the best for last. Catherine (Cat) Luedtke plays the prostitute Climax in a manner outrageously funny as her name. Posing like an ancient Amazon dominatrix resurrected to appear on Saturday Night Live, she delivers her lines in a dry, wry, contemporary tone of irony that make them twice as funny as the words suggest. Last, anything but least, is Jef Valentine as the Pantalone character, Hospitalides. Valentine is a commedia expert, among the finest performers in this style I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Good comedians play over the top to the point of exhaustion, and that is wonderful to behold, but the very best comedians seem to be holding something back, so that the laughter is prolonged and not too soon exhausted. They keep us dangling on a joke longer than it seems possible. Valentine is that kind of comic performer.
Director Odcikin also designed the colorful and serviceable set, and the costume designs of Keiko Shimosato Carreiro deserve an award.
All in all, you’ll have a ball. Hasten to the Gough Street Playhouse, and laugh till your sides split.
“The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through April 26. For further information, click here.
“The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard” by Plautus, translated by Deena Berg and adapted by Evren Odcikin for Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: Evren Odcikin. Costumes: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. Lighting: William Campbell. Set: Evren Odcikin. Sound Design: Liz Ryder.
Dexter: Alan Coyne. Major Topple d’Acropolis: Kai Morrison. Haplus: Matt Gunnison. Hospitalides: Jef Valentine. Convivia: Eden Neuendorf. Nautikles: Darek Burkowski. Climax: Catherine Luedtke.
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