"On second thought, let's not go to Camelot. 'Tis a silly place." - King Arthur, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"
The Village Repertory Co. has a solid reputation for presenting serious dramas and sophisticated comedies, but the Charleston-based production company enjoys tackling the lighter side of things, too, especially when it comes to the ingenious hilarity of the classic British troupe Monty Python.
Director Keely Enright, a founding member of the Village Repertory Co., believes that some of the company's loyal patrons may be surprised at the wild and energetic style of the latest production, a rendition of the award-winning musical "Spamalot," adapted from the 1975 cult classic film "Monty Python and The Holy Grail " with additional references to various Monty Python works.
"This production is beside itself with silliness," Enright says. "If you're coming for a heavy evening and do not enjoy silliness, this is not the show for you."
Specializing in an experimental, surreal style of sketch comedy, the Monty Python team - Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin - tested the boundaries of conventional comedy during the initial run of TV's "Monty Python's Flying Circus" during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their clever wackiness was as innovative as it was silly, as demonstrated in the 45 episodes of the series and in several big-screen projects conducted in the late 1970s and '80s.
In the epic and scenic "Monty Python and The Holy Grail," the troupe explores the legend of King Arthur and his quest for the holy grail. The film meanders through various sketches and graphic scenes with most of the core members handling multiple roles. Much of it is effectively absurd.
"I'm old enough to have grown up watching 'Monty Python' on American television, not in its original run, but when the episodes hit late-night on the earliest version of cable TV," Enright says. "I really liked it as a kid. I was familiar with a lot of Monty Python stuff, but my husband was crazy to see the stage musical when it hit Broadway, so I went along as the dutiful spouse. It was so hilarious."
Written and directed by founding Python member Idle, "Spamalot" officially opened on Broadway in March 2005 under the direction of Mike Nichols and choreography of Casey Nicholaw.
The original cast featured British actor Tim Curry as King Arthur alongside Michael McGrath as the king's companion Patsy, David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin and Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot, among other characters. John Cleese provided extra recorded narration as the voice of God.
The production was nominated for 14 Tony Awards that year, snagging Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake).
"Spamalot" ran on Broadway through 2009, clocking in more than 1,500 performances.
"As a director, it has been my job to keep this silly," Enright says of her company's rendition. "One of the joys of seeing the show live is watching the actors enjoying the time they're having on stage. Usually, when you go see a great Broadway show, it's crisp, beautiful and well produced with lovely actors projecting their voices. This is unusual in that they seem to be having such a (expletive) good time without the audience that it makes you want to be a part of the experience. It feels like an interactive piece with a vibe that feels like a party. That's what you come away with.
"Certainly, if you're a rabid Monty Python fan, you'll get all of the references to the films," she adds. "But I realized that you don't have to be a Monty Python fan to enjoy the show and have a great time."
The Village Repertory Co. is one of several Lowcountry-based community theater companies producing musicals and plays at local venues. The company formed 15 years ago in Mount Pleasant under the guidance of Enright and managing director Dave Reinwald.
The Village Repertory Co. has presented more than 100 full-scale productions over the years. It now enjoys a residency at the handsomely renovated, 200-seat Woolfe Street Playhouse off of Upper King Street.
Enright has collaborated on 170 productions since the formation of the Village Repertory Co. She's directed more than 80 plays and musicals during her tenure, from serious dramas and light comedies to classic pieces and new works.
"We're very proud of what we've done so far," she says. "We've only been in the Woolfe Street Playhouse for 16 months, but we've already done 12 main stage shows. We did about 150 shows in the old space. We're always collaborating with different artists in town, and we're aiming to make the Woolfe Street Playhouse available for various groups in the community."
The Village Repertory Co. is a founding member of the League of Charleston Theatres, an alliance of local organizations that supports and promotes live theatre in Charleston and across the country.
"It's really cool how much the theater community has grown in Charleston over the last 15 years," Enright adds. "The Village Repertory Co. is very involved. We get together with most of the producers around town once a month. It's impressive how the excellence and integrity of the work has grown over the years, too."
Village Repertory Co. began work on "Spamalot" earlier this year, enlisting local musician and songwriter Laura Ball for musical direction and casting local actors such as Josh Wilhoit, Becca Anderson, Noah Smith, Robbie Thomas, Derek T. Pickens, Dave Reinwald and Randy Risher.
"This is a great group of accomplished performers, and they can handle the unexpected," Enright says. "I'm very fortunate to have such a great group to work with.
"Most of the performers in the show already have a wealth of Monty Python background, and they have a lot of personal love and affection for it," she adds. "They get it, and that helps. We've all had a ball with the material."
Enright and her team are well aware that some of their audience this month has yet to be initiated into the world of Monty Python, so they wanted the production to be respectful of that. While longtime fans will surely catch many of the specific references, asides and lines of dialog, newcomers might be a bit lost from scene to scene.
"When 'Monty Python and The Holy Grail' originally came out, the Monty Python guys were aiming for an audience who weren't already huge fans," Enright says. "They were hoping people would enjoy the spoof of the King Arthur legend. That was the original intent; that's what we kept going back to, as well. We're not trying to replicate the show on Broadway - we don't have nearly the budget to do that, anyway - but we do want to create a unique experience at the Woolfe Street Playhouse with our version of the story."
Handling the numerous scenes and multiple characters from "Monty Python and The Holy Grail" brought a host of physical challenges, from creating a Camelot in a small space to keeping up with the rapid pace and particulars of costume changes.
"We've made so many changes as we've gone along, rehearsing in the last few months. There are lots of little production elements that we've done to make this our own," Enright says. "Eric Idle put this together in such a way that you get the joy of seeing a lot of characters on stage. With the exception of King Arthur, most of the performers have multiple roles through the show, so we make a lot of very quick changes backstage. It's been tough for the costumer, Julie Ziff, who normally is free to design how she likes. Julie was hamstrung by the fact that there are certain things you have to do to satisfy a Monty Python fan."
Of course, not every audience member during "Spamalot's" run will be familiar with Brave Sir Robin, the Knights Who Say "Ni," Tim the Enchanter or the Killer Rabbit (a few of the many weird highlights from the original film).
"I remind the actors, 'Don't play the joke based on what you know. Don't have an expectation of people knowing the show.' I always try to look at the production from the audience's perspective," she says. "We have to continue to play for that 20-year-old who has no idea about the Monty Python shows and movies. I want us to make them a fan on our terms. I want to open up a door for them in our own way."