Magic Smoking Moses

Thou shalt not spoof DeMilles Ten Commandments

May 17, 2006 at 4:00 am
Verily, ten years ago did Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre arise to bring St. Louis lively spoofed versions of cheesy film and TV classics. Over the years a pattern has emerged; yea, one might even say a list of commandments, which assures the comic viability of an MSM show. The current production, The Ten Commandments Live! makes a valiant effort at following the formula but falls short in several aspects. To wit:

I. Thou shalt choose wisely in selecting a show to be spoofed. Sci-fi films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and the Star Wars trilogy lend themselves to clever sight gags; any movie that most of the audience knows well (think It's a Wonderful Life) is a good candidate. Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic The Ten Commandments is a questionable choice because it's neither a cult classic nor a holiday favorite. While many audience members seemed vaguely familiar with the movie, there were few of the "aha" moments that generally occur in a Monkey show when a well-known line of dialogue is delivered. In fact, many of the production's funniest moments came from references to other (more popular) films.

II. Thou shalt accurately mimic the movie actors. Jill Ritter and Tyson Blanquart excel here. Ritter portrays Anne Baxter portraying Princess Nefretiri, capturing Baxter's cadences and eyelash-fluttering takes to the camera, and Blanquart is a spot-on Edward G. Robinson as the nefarious Dathan. Roger Erb captures the physical postures and vocal cadences of Yul Brynner as Rameses but needs more volume, while Dave Cooperstein as Charlton Heston/Moses presents all of Heston's vocal and physical tics but seems disconnected from the character and story.

III. Thou shalt fill thy mouth with liquid and spew said contents at the audience and provide plastic coverage so no raiment will be soiled. Indeed. The folks in the front row seemed grateful for the spit-shield.

IV. There shall be cross-dressing, and the actors shall present the stereotypes of each gender for audience enjoyment. Here the nasty Amalekite tribesmen are played by women and six of the seven daughters of Jethro are played by men — the latter resulting in a boisterous veil dance when the daughters try to get Moses to choose between them.

V. Thou shalt covet the comic skills of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers, and yea verily, all manner of circus clowns. Some members of the cast were clearly more comfortable with the broad physical humor than others.

VI. Thou shalt not have an intermission. Previous Monkey shows condensed the Star Wars trilogy to about an hour and did a five-minute version of The Lord of the Rings. This production, while certainly shorter than the 220-minute original, seems long at about 90 minutes.

VII. Thou shalt have a solid ensemble. Director Donna Northcott has assembled an energetic group of 15 actors who portray more than 30 characters. While not uniformly strong, there were some standout performances: Aaron Orion Baker as both Sethi and Rameses' son, Ben Ritchie as Joshua and Margaret Swoboda as Lilia.

VIII. Thou shalt not let the actors pause during the performance (indeed, there will be much changing of costumes and running around so that endurance will be sorely tested). Check.

IX. Thou shalt not have excellent production values. Much of the humor in a Monkey show is provided by the time-tested Poor Theater Approach to Special Effects: a blue cloth stands in for the River Nile, tossed Ping-Pong balls become a hailstorm. Unfortunately, as a venue the Regional Arts Center hinders this production; the space suffers from poor acoustics, and the show must compete with noise from other events.

X. Thou shalt award a door prize (yea, even a miniature Magic Smoking Monkey). Yes, but while true to the spirit of many Magic Smoking Monkey show traditions, this production seems strained, as if trying too hard to be funny. Cecil B. DeMille is a mighty challenge for Cecil B. DeMonkey.