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Valhalla
a Absurdist Comedy
CATEGORY : COMEDY DRAMA
by Paul Rudnick

COMPANY : Essential Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : 7 Stages [WEBSITE]
ID# 2799

SHOWING : June 27, 2008 - July 27, 2008

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

VALHALLA by Paul Rudnick An outrageous comedy-fantasy about a king who goes mad trying to create beautiful fairy-tale castles. Southeastern Premiere, by the author of I HATE HAMLET and THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD.

VALHALLA plays in repertory with WEST OF EDEN and AFTER ASHLEY as part of the 10th Annivery Power Plays Festival. Please visit the website http://www.essentialtheatre.com for specific dates and times.


CAST & CREW LIST
Director Peter Morris Hardy
Stage Manager Jennifer Brown
Tech Director Harley Gould
Set Design Sonny Knox
Costume Design Jane B. Kroessig
Props Design Kathy Manning
Lighting Design Mitch Marcus
Sound Design Spencer G. Stephens
James Avery Matt Felten
Sally Mortimer/ Princess Patricia/ Princ Katie Graham
Sally Mortimer/ Princess Patricia/ Princ Kate Graham
Pfeiffer/ Otto/ Footman/ Princess Ursula Ali Gutierrez
Henry Lee Stafford/ Helmut/ Opera Singer Greg Morris
Ludwig Topher Payne
Margaret Avery/ Queen Marie/ Princess En Sunny Williams
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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Swan Song
by Dedalus
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
3.5
In 1848, Richard Wagner writes his opera Lohengrin, creating time-honored melodies that tell the Arthurian tale of the Knight of the Swans, and his rescue of the fair Elsa.

In 1869, King Leopold II of Bavaria, a friend to Wagner and lover of all things Lohengrin, begins construction on the magnificent Neuschwanstein (“New Swan Stone”) Castle near Hohenschwangau in Southwest Bavaria.

In the early 1930’s a fictional boy named James Avery steals a glass Swan figurine from a small town Texas Department store because he “really wanted it.”

These seemingly unconnected events form the backbone of Paul Rudnick’s new comedy, “Valhalla,” an examination of love and beauty and music and swans. And it is the opening of this year’s Essential Theatre “Power Play” Festival, an annual gathering of plays freshly written by Georgia Playwrights, or works of established playwrights that are seeing their first Southeastern productions.

Mr. Rudnick has built a reputation as a “gay Neil Simon,” writing very accessible plays with gay themes (or, as in “I Hate Hamlet,” gay subtexts) as well as popular movies (such as “In & Out”). With “Valhalla,” he has written a very funny, sometimes moving piece that follows the life and adventures of King Ludwig and the fictional romances of the 20th-century James Avery. All the other characters are played with bravura quick-change ease by a company four, who often switch genders, centuries, and costumes in the space of seconds.

Although I found much to admire and enjoy in this production, I’m not sure Mr. Rudnick completely succeeds at integrating the two stories, and I’m not sure this production takes full advantage of the opportunities that are there. This is really only a vague feeling, leaving me at a loss to articulate specific shortcomings of either playwright or production team. Still, this is a funny (VERY funny) and captivating show, which actually motivated me to find out more about poor Ludwig and his life.

Ludwig, while still a Prince, finds himself isolated from others and in full training for his eventual succession to the throne. He has no one who shares his likes and dislikes, no friends, no confidants, and no desire to make the further acquaintance of any of the ludicrously “wrong”’ Princesses who are paraded before him. But one day, while in the forest, he makes the acquaintance of Princess Sophie of Austria, an equally insecure lady who shares his love for Lohengrin and his dislike for arranged royal engagements. She is also a hunchback, and Leopold is the first person to ever make her feel beautiful. They remain the best of friends, even after Sophie discovers he’s really the Prince, even after she discovers his preference for the tenors and baritones of the local opera company. And she inspires him to follow in the footsteps of the great kings of the past, and be remembered for his buildings, buildings that bankrupt his kingdom and send him into a presumed and comforting madness.

Meanwhile, a hundred years later, James Avery is heading down the path to juvenile delinquency. He finishes High School in a reformatory and comes back home to seduce away Sally, the almost-bride (and prom queen) of his childhood conquest, Henry Lee. That she loves them both is evident, that James loves them both is equally evident. As they grow into adulthood, James and Henry Lee find themselves in the same army unit, behind German lines, hiding for their lives. Meanwhile, Sally finds herself pregnant with the child of, well, one of them.

The war takes a bitter toll, and the play ends with a bittersweet coda, which I won’t spoil for you. Let’s just say it involves a solid gold valentine-shaped reliquary that may (or may not) contain the heart of King Leopold.

I cannot talk about this production without praising the cast. Topher Payne is Ludwig in a way I was not expecting. He has made a career of playing and writing about gay characters. Here, though, he concentrates more on making him a confused, lonely young man without the stereotypical campy mannerism we might expect. Yes, we see him preferring men to women, but we also believe his genuine affection for and friendship with Sophie. He is a fully a 19th-century aristocrat, not a 20th-century cliché. And I, for one, fully accepted his eventual embracement of madness, his obsession with Lohengrin, and his total infatuation with beauty of any kind.

Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Matt Felten gives James Avery a drive and burning intensity that transcends sexuality and expectation. He makes the seductions of Henry Lee and Sally equally believable and even desirable. This is a character who can only be happy indulging all his sides.

Of the supporting cast, I found Kate Graham, the most impressive, and this is not intended to belittle the efforts of the others – Greg Morris (Henry Lee and others), Sunny Williams (the mother of both Leopold and James, among others), and Alejandro Gutierrez (Leopold’s brother, his chief minister, and others). But Ms. Graham must play both the blonde Texan Sally and the Austrian brunette Sophie, sometimes in consecutive scenes. Yes, she owes a debt of gratitude to her dressers and wig-makers, but she gives both characters a sparkle and edge that are all her own -- delightful, appealing, and distinct. These (and the few other minor parts) show her to have a remarkable range that hopefully will soon be exploited by other theatres.

If the connection between the stories strains a bit, if the interactions between the characters of differing centuries sometimes seem more playwright contrivance that character-driven madness, if the energy (and humor) flag a bit in Act II, the final coda is beautiful, symbolic elegy to both stories, and a moving meditation on the nature of love and beauty.

The set is simple and stark, fully in tune with the constraints of a production in repertory, and seemingly in contrast with Leopold’s obsession with elaborate architecture and over -the-top construction. But, at the same time, it gives an elegant bridge between the centuries, and gives us the opportunity to imagine a grander castle than any set designer could conceive and build. And, on Leopold’s ascension to the throne, the lighting conspires with the simple set (and Mr. Payne’s performance) to give us a moment of transplendent glory.

King Leopold was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1886 in a lake outside his still not-quite-complete Neuschwanstein Castle. Following the custom of his time, his heart was not buried with his body, but kept in a gilded reliquary. This play succeeds as history never does in showing how the truth of his heart is the Swanlike beauty of Lohengrin, a Swan Song for a life striving for the eternal, a beauty capturing that timeless eternal.

Rather than the traditional “Swan Song” of eras’ ends, this is a fitting opening for what promises to be another successful Power Plays Festival.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Afternote: I will judging the other Two “Power Plays” (“West of Eden” by Letitia Sweitzer and “After Ashley” by Gina Gionfriddo) for the 2008/2009 M.A.T. awards, so I will be unable to post any reviews of them until September of 2009. Naturally, this doesn’t mean I won’t write and eventually share them, just as this September I’ll be finally able to share my reviews from 2007’s “Power Plays,” including a James-Joyce-inspired run-on sentence in response to the dreamlike “Night Travels.” Look for them …


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