“You’re always talking down to me like I’m some kind of retarded bicycle clown!”
Sometimes the good reviews are easy to write.
If you need a laugh, or several dozen hearty laughs for that matter, get over and see Urban Samurai’s farce “Protection Program” before it’s upcoming final weekend runs out.
It’s one of those shows I know I “shouldn’t” be laughing at, but I couldn’t help myself. Aaron Christopher’s script is so deeply wrong on so many levels, it should be offensive, but instead it’s just hilariously silly. I have no idea how he pulled that off, but my hat is off to the man.
“Just because we are faking marital strife, doesn’t mean I have to feed my guests toxic waste!”
“Protection Program” centers around Otto (Nate Hessburg, in a turn completely unlike his work in the equally funny [but disturbing] “American Apathy” for Urban Samurai last year). Otto is gay. Really, really gay. Liberace gay. A screaming ninny in the same genus as Dr. Smith from the original TV version of “Lost In Space.” Otto is so gay I started to wonder if I was really gay. On my gayest day, Otto is still a whole other certification level of gay ahead of me. Otto is a throwback and a stereotype and he should offend the hell out of me. But Hessburg’s portrayal is so unapologetically over the top, and strangely affectionate, taking its cue from the script, that I can only roll my eyes and play along and laugh in spite of myself.
“You must have gotten the wrong impression. We’re in the circus.”
Otto is in the Witness Protection Program as the key witness in major corruption case. But the Marshall (Adam Sharp) protecting Otto has the same name as another Allen Thompson (Nicholas Leeman), and both of them end up renting the same apartment. Right after the Marshall moves Otto into the place, Allen moves his girlfriend Cynthia (Jennifer Aldridge) into the place. No sooner do Otto and Cynthia discover one another and settle into an uncomfortable alliance to try and straighten out their living arrangements, than the overly friendly (and oversexed) neighbors start dropping by. The cover stories get increasingly weird and complicated, spiraling quickly out of control. Throw in a homeless guy and a hit man (both played by John Bungert), and one ill-advised, apartment-warming party, and, well, brace for impact.
“All I know is that I was getting ready for bed and the next thing I know there’s a stranger swinging a bar stool at my head.”
Director Michael Mellas has paced this thing at just the right clip. It never slows down, but you never feel like you’re getting left behind. The vast stage and its various windows and doors (designed by Erica Zaffarano) are used to great comic effect. Marcia Salveson’s costumes, like the characters, are all just a little bit off, but in this farcical world, they all fit. (I had to acknowledge my inner geek when a T-shirt appeared stating ‘Joss Whedon Is My Master Now.’) The bewildering assortment of goofy props and set dressing, including a chair so ramshackle that it threatens to devour people whole, must have kept designer Ryan Grimes quite busy. Nate Hessburg also provided the sound design, consisting largely of a mix of kitschy pop standards and throbbing electronica that keep the mood of the evening light and bouncy between scenes and acts.
“Don’t even try to seduce me, you black widow assassin!”
“Protection Program” isn’t for the easily offended. In addition to Otto’s brand of gaiety, there’s considerable comic hay made of the horny black married neighbor Trevor (Kalif Troy) pursuing the very white Cynthia (Aldridge) all over the apartment making lewd advances verbally and physically. Some of the most amusing physical comedy involves various members of the ensemble repeatedly beating an old woman over the head. Said old woman, Phiona (Wendy Freshman), is also horny and continually throws herself at hit man for a little gratification. Trevor’s wife Barbara (Anna Olson) is also, you guessed it, horny, and can’t keep her hands off Otto, completely oblivious to the fact that he’s extremely gay. Any man (Leeman and Bungert among them) that gets involved in a tussle with Otto over some disagreement invariably ends up in a number of awkward positions simulating anal sex. If Troy, Aldridge, Freshman, Olson, Leeman, and Bungert, weren’t such fantastic comedians, none of this might work. Thankfully, they are fantastic, and they had me laughing too hard to put on my politically correct sense of indignation at such scenarios. Instead, I got to just kick back and enjoy myself. If you have a sense of humor and can take a joke at your own expense, it’s very refreshing.
“While you were unconscious, Otto and I got married.”
When comedy is this smart and this funny at the same time, and sustains itself over two acts, it’s hard not to be impressed. Aldridge, Leeman and Hessburg are such a winning trio, and work so well off each other, I found myself wanting to see what other scrapes Cynthia and Allen and Otto might get themselves into (and out of) beyond this story. A play that leaves you wanting more is a very good thing. “Protection Program” is very good indeed.
Very Highly Recommended.
Urban Samurai Productions’ “Protection Program” has just three performances remaining (so don’t delay) – Friday and Saturday, June 5th and 6th, at 7:30pm, and Sunday, June 7th at 2pm. Tickets are $14 online, $16 at the door ($10/$12 online/at the door for students and seniors). Reservations, directions and more information is available at www.urbansamurai.org. It plays at the Sabes Jewish Community Center (4330 Cedar Lake Road South, St. Louis Park, MN) – and I’m glad this show finally got me out there, so I could discover how easy it is to get there. There have been a number of productions in recent years that piqued my interest at the Sabes JCC, but I’d never made the trek til now. As someone who gets lost ridiculously easy, I am happy to say I had no trouble finding the place. From where I live just outside downtown Minneapolis, it’s just a quick hop onto 394W, off at the Xenia/Park Place exit (#5), left onto Park Place, which turns into Cedar Lake Road South, and the beauty is, you can’t go too far. Cedar Lake Road ends in the Sabes JCC parking lot. Even my lousy sense of direction can’t screw that up.