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Across the Festival: August 2--Pleasance Courtyard

Michael Cox reviews The Cat in the Hat, The Complete History of Comedy--abridged, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Red Bastard.

I spent the day at the Pleasance Courtyard, and neither the heavy rain (where is the sun we had just a few days ago?) nor the Commonwealth Games seemed to put a damper on audience numbers. The Courtyard is literally bustling with venues, so it’s easy to have a sundry day, just to keep things interesting.

First up, The Cat in the Hat (***), a theatrical retelling of the Dr. Seuss classic. For those not in the know, two children are stuck at home: alone, bored and unable to play outside due to the heavy rain. Things go topsy-turvy when the titular cat enters, dressed in the famous tall white and red striped hat. He says he just wants to have fun, which starts harmlessly enough but soon escalates into chaos.

As the Cat gets up to hijinks rather than dangerous mischief, it’s all rather innocent. But perhaps that’s the problem with the production: it just feels too safe. Only in the final moments does the production kick into chaotic fun, with the brother and sister trying to stop the Cat and his two friends, Thing 1 and Thing 2, from wrecking havoc in their house.

If only the rest of the production was as loose and willing to take theatrical leaps, this would have been a winner. Instead, it’s harmless fun that works but is nearly forgettable soon after curtain.

Forgettable is not a word I’d use to describe the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete History of Comedy—abridged (****). The American theatre company has a knack for distilling large subjects into short, hilarious productions, and they have succeeded in creating a production that is high in energy and wit.

The production does pretty much what its title says: three actors take the audience on an investigative ride through the history of comedy, starting with the birth of comedy (literally) and ending in modern, uncertain times.

Is it silly? Very. Does it always work? Nope, but it hits far more often that it doesn’t. Some of the sketches are theatrical in-jokes that might not resonate with some casual theatregoers, and I’m also a bit curious how informed they really are in their British references, some of which seem thrown in because a researcher or friend told them to.

But it’s also wonderfully hilarious, and while it would be easy to write much of it off as only mindless ‘comedy’, the production does an admirable job in not only making the case for comedy’s importance in life but in how ‘serious’ one has to be in order to be truly funny. Really wacky good fun.

Those familiar with Hunter S Thompson’s gonzo opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (***) will have a pretty good idea what to expect: an orgy of drug-taking by two loveable rogues, a journalist and a lawyer. They have come to Las Vegas officially on a reporting assignment, but their true quest is to search out the American Dream. They fail, but they succeed in tearing the social order down while high.

Perhaps Lou Stein’s production doesn’t quite carry the punch that Thompson’s novel, or indeed Terry Gilliam’s underrated film version, are able to achieve. The staging is very good, as is Stein’s adaptation of the novel. But the images, so vibrant in the grotesque drawings that illustrated the book and in one’s imagination painted from Thompson’s prose (or seen in Gilliam’s high-cost film design concept), are not as potent here.

But what it does do is allow one to fully appreciate Thompson’s true writing gift. The man was able to write wonderful passages, and Stein’s decision to have two actors voice Thompson, one playing an older, sometimes reflective Narrator and the other playing his alter ego, Raoul Duke, is a masterstroke that allows Thompson’s voice to always ring clearly.

The result is a very good production that’s filled with solid performances and makes one have a better appreciation of Thompson’s book. But it isn’t for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Take one star off if you are so imposed, but gladly add a star if you are a fan of Thompson’s work or of any counter-culture journeys into the unknown.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest talking points with critics and audiences at last year’s festival was Red Bastard (*****). Who is Red Bastard? Well, that would be American performer Eric Davis. Perhaps the better question is: what is Red Bastard?

And it’s there that I struggle, not because I don’t know (I do), but because it’s a show—maybe I should instead say ‘experience’—that is best left to an audience to discover. I can’t lie—the production is highly challenging, and you are all but certain to squirm in your seat during the course of the hour-long running time, particularly in the first half when things get particularly outrageous and confrontational.

But stay with it, because, as the show says, with big risks comes big rewards. And the rewards for attending are quite enormous because, as with most important art, the production makes one take a deep look into the personal abyss, and while the production might be hard-going, it’s all but certain you will leave feeling a personal high. It is also one of the greatest challenges to the question: what is theatre?

The tag line says that the show can change your life; that might be a hyperbole, but it does pose personal questions that might make you reflect on your life and what makes you tick as an individual. And who knows, you might also accept the challenge and very well make personal changes.

Believe the hype: Red Bastard is an unforgettable experience that must be had.

All shows perform at the Pleasance Courtyard. Check venue details for days and times.

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