To Mock the Schlock

Taking aim at the NRA's Charlton Heston in Magic Smoking Monkey Theater's Planet of the Apes: Live!

Charlton Heston stands in macho defiance, willing and able to gun down those who oppose him in this godforsaken wasteland of a world, fighting for freedom and the truth. That's the story of The Omega Man, Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes, the stuffy actor's trilogy of sweaty science-fiction epics. His wooden delivery, voice of grave constipation and Reaganite politics make him an easy target. Prepare to defend yourself, Mr. Heston -- your beloved theater is shooting back.

Planet of the Apes: Live!, this year's incarnation of the annual production by the Magic Smoking Monkey Theater, is ready for its chest-pounding debut. St. Louis' answer to the humorous late-night-theater scene in Chicago, MSMT has been described as "the mutant offspring of the St. Louis Shakespeare Company," according to the managing director of both groups, Mitch Herzog. His wife, Donna Northcott, serves as artistic director for both ensembles, and both groups draw largely from the same pool of actors.

Magic Smoking Monkey lives up to its name when it takes on the movie Planet of the Apes and its stentorian-voiced actor hero, Heston. The evening begins with a live-action/video hybrid "trailer," in which an actor portraying Heston entertains the Heston clan with a series of video clips from such Charlton chestnuts as The Ten Commandments, Airport '75 and Soylent Green. The clips are individual minispoofs previously filmed by MSMT. As the Heston family enjoys dear old Dad's video scrapbook, certain, um, memorable interruptions take place. Let's just say that no one in the family emerges from the TV room unscathed.

Then it's on to Planet, featuring Jim Ousley as marooned astronaut Taylor, the Heston character; Amy Elz as animal psychologist Dr. Zira, played by Kim Hunter in the film; Nathan Milford as archaeologist Dr. Cornelius (the "young ape with a shovel," Herzog says), played by Roddy McDowall in the movie; and Drew Bell as scientist-with-a-secret Dr. Zaius.

Theatergoers can expect the MSMT treatment of the Planet script, which means that certain scenes and characters have been dropped, lines have been changed and surprises have been added but that much of the humor comes unadulterated from the original script and, of course, Heston's smug performance.

"What's a little different about this production from other Smoking Monkey productions is this movie is actually a lot better (than previously adapted movies)," says Herzog. "Usually the dialogue, the screenplays for the stuff that we're doing are absolutely horrible and over-the-top, and that's why we choose them -- so we don't have to do much. We just present, in a heightened way, the dialogue, and that's a sure laugh-getter. The script for Planet of the Apes is actually pretty good, and it was a pretty good movie -- actually it was a very good movie."

But then there's Heston. "His acting is as broad as a barn ... and we get the added bonus of his NRA connections, which we're going to be able to spoof, both in Planet of the Apes and in the trailer," he adds.

"It's really Chuck that makes it worth giving it the Monkey treatment," adds Northcott, "because he is so over-the-top and such a ham."

The play is not without reference to the episode of The Simpsons that contains the musical spoof Stop Planet of the Apes: I Want to Get Off!, and the evening is concluded with a twisted take on that famous final scene from Planet, which, once again, is best left unrevealed for the Planet virgins out there. The MSMT tradition of presenting a magic smoking monkey as a door prize after each show will continue, and, Herzog adds, the group plans to sell "realistic-looking Soylent Green" in the lobby as a preshow snack. (Good God, no!)

How did these Shakespearean thespians fall so low? Blame the lowbrow offshoot of the Chicago theater scene.

"Donna and I went to Chicago and saw a lot of late-night offbeat stuff that they did up there, like Coed Prison Sluts, Reefer Madness, Attack of the Killer B-Movies, Shannen Doherty Shoots a Porno," says Herzog. "It was really way-out campy stuff, and we thought there was nothing like this that anybody was doing in St. Louis, and we thought it was hilarious."

Inspired by groups such as the Annoyance Theatre, which was responsible for most of the aforementioned shows, Herzog and Northcott imported the idea of offering theatrical spoofs of films and TV shows from pop culture, letting the absurdity of the dreck speak for itself and adding the occasional embellishment to ensure laughs.

So plays with titles like Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack lit idea bulbs for formally trained actress Northcott and experienced dancer/musical actor Herzog. They gave birth to the stage versions of Ed Wood's inimitable Glen or Glenda?, The Brain from Planet Arous, Valley of the Dolls, Bride of the Monster, The Twilight Zone, Speed Racer ("probably the funniest 20 minutes we've ever had," says Herzog), Elvis movie Girl Happy, The Brady Bunch (featuring the episode in which esteem-troubled Jan Brady dons an Afro wig) and The Mod Squad.

"We started this in '96, and we had no idea what the audience response was going to be," says Herzog, "but people just peed their pants, and they kept doing that. For all the shows, the response has been incredible."

MSMT welcomes suggestions for movies and TV shows to parody onstage at their Web site, accessible through the St. Louis Shakespeare Company site, at Northcott says the company is "kicking around" the idea of producing Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island or possibly a Doris Day movie. Produced but once a year, all their shows are must-see.

Magic Smoking Monkey Theater presents Planet of the Apes: Live! at the ArtLoft Black Box Theatre, 1527 Washington Ave., at 8 and 10:30 p.m. May 19, 20, 26 and 27. Cost is $8. Call 314-361-5664 for reservations.