Too Fast To Last

Magic Smoking Monkey rushes the stage

May 19, 2004 at 4:00 am
Warning: Analysis of Saturday-morning cartoons versus blockbuster movies to follow. Don your giganto-intellectuo-glasses or skip to the next paragraph. Glasses on? Here goes. Last year St. Louis Shakespeare's Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre had a megahit with its one-hour sendup of the Star Wars trilogy. Part of the goofy fun was seeing how they could cram the contents of three full-length movies into an hour; part of the fun was the golly-gee imitations of the beloved cast of characters; and as always, the low-tech special effects were a highlight. This year director and adapter Donna Northcott sics the Monkey on two vaguely remembered kids' shows and comes up with Speed Racer and The Challenge of the Superfriends. Because they're cartoons, the dialogue, characters and plot are already thin, silly and unbelievable: Monkey doesn't have much to parody. The flimsy material, combined with a breakneck speaking pace and faulty technical elements, make this comic car come dangerously close to crashing.

Sound designer Chuck Lavazzi provides peppy cartoon theme-show music to amuse the audience as it enters the ArtLoft Theatre. The set -- brightly painted greenish, mauvish and yellowish walls surrounded by black curtains -- looks appropriately cheap. So far, all seems typically Monkey. But once the show starts, it's clear that the evil to be fought is not the nefarious Cruncher Block nor the Legion of Doom; it's the dreaded disease of talking-faster-than-the-human-ear-can-decipher. The cast's speed-race through the script replaces possible audience laughter with whispers of "What did he say?"

The super-speedy chatter has the most calamitous effect on the opening episode, "Speed Racer: The Mammoth Car." The cast looks great -- Oscar Madrid and Amy Elz as Speed Racer and Trixie look like they've jumped off a trademarked lunchbox. The goons and the good guys fight, the cars race, and Speed and his pals triumph in the end -- and they might as well have been speaking Swedish for all that could be understood.

The next two episodes slow down enough that some of the dialogue-driven laughs score. Diane Hartke as Giganta is most impressive -- every word is clear, and her super-size battle with Apache Chief (Blaine Smith) is very funny. Dave Cooperstein plays Aquaman with perfect hair and diction and shows off good comic timing in his various encounters with fish and dinosaurs. In skin-tight red Spandex, Mike Bowdern is a flashy Flash, making his own zooming sound effects and providing just the right amount of earnest energy. In one of Northcott's inspired staging moments, Flash runs so fast that our image of him doubles -- a typical cheap-effect Monkey moment that reveals the troupe's comic abilities.

As the narrator, B. Weller is consistently funny -- popping up from unexpected places to announce the next twist in the plot, and wearing a silly smile that shows how much he's enjoying himself. It's clear that the cast is having fun, and occasionally that fun is infectious. But sloppy technical elements undermine much of the humor. The lights seem unable to keep pace with the actors' movements, illuminating uninhabited parts of the stage and leaving speaking actors in the dark. And in the final Superfriends episode, the three-headed Venusian villains are supposed to speak in an echoing voice, but muffled mumbling is all that can be discerned.

If you're a Superfriends fanatic or a lover of Speed Racer, the fun of seeing your favorite characters acted out with silly solemnity will overcome the other distractions. Jim Ousley does a great impression of Chim-Chim. Julie Layton looks fabulous in her red-white-and-blue Wonder Woman bathing suit. Superman's forehead curl stays in place even while its host battles meteors in outer space, and Batman and Robin are suitably caped. If Robin were writing this review, he'd say, "Holy Speeding Monkey, Batman -- we've got to enunciate!" Perhaps once the opening-night adrenaline wears off, the speech will slow down, the lights will catch up and the humor of the show will triumph.