Dallas — Ochre House productions always have an opera-in-a-bar vibe. Artistic director and house playwright Matthew Posey, pumped by his marvelously motley and talented crew, plops tragedy, comedy or historic drama (often a salad of the obscene and the sublime) right in our laps. From life-size puppets to light fixture hats, everybody concocts fresh ways to make big theater happen in this small storefront space.
They’ve done it again in Posey’s newest play, The Passing Show, a comedy with music by Justin Locklear and Trey Pendergrass, and lyrics by Mitchell Parrack. Directed by the playwright with a kind of lurching rhythm its subject would appreciate, the show imagines the last performance of Lord Richard Buckley, an American-born comedian in the 40s and 50s who created a stage persona—part hipster, part pompous British aristocrat—that led him from vaudeville to the Ed Sullivan Show. Buckley’s so-called “hipsomatic” satiric outtakes on everything from Shakespeare to the Gettysburg address inspired the Beat poets, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, among others.
Here, Buckley (a blustery, booming-voiced Ben Bryant) takes the stage following a breathless introduction by his anxious accompanist Musician (a terrified and frantically smiling Justin Locklear, in huge horn-rim glasses, a tight purple tux, and two-tone wingtips). Outfitted in his trademark tuxedo and pith helmet, Lord B is ready to do stage battle—and that he does, in a windy introduction to King Lear that includes a cautionary flying lesson and a rousing Charleston, joined by his manically smiling wife (a rosy-cheeked and hard-boogiein’ Carla Parker). “I jes wanna be the cat daddy of ‘em all,” he wails plaintively. When Buckley flags, his watchful Musician rushes the old boy offstage for a doobie break while the hapless drummer stares at the audience until the show resumes—and the smell of a fresh joint wafts into the crowd.
Huffing and puffing, and breaking for moral and physical support from his loyal spouse and adoring musicians, Buckley does a hilarious and surprisingly wrenching one-man Lear (his wife does the Fool for one scene), partly summarizing the action in his be-bop hipster slang and then speaking each role in fast succession, while moving beneath a series of wigs yanked from overhead bungee cords and babbling like the Bard on LSD. Got that? Bryant is belly-laugh brilliant in these super-fast sequences, popping on his Cordelia wig and declaring in a high-pitched voice, “I love you, Pops, like a hatched chick loves its mother hen—no more, no less.”
Despite his near-breakdown when he gets to Edmund’s bastardly speech or news of Cordelia’s death, Lord Buckley bravely shoulders through the king’s blind rush to his fate, sweating buckets and wiping it up with his embossed hanky. Locklear, on keyboard and guitar, follows every pause and intonation of Bryant’s lean-in, eye-rolling story-telling technique. Great stuff. The songs, from blues to gospel to be-bop, mostly reflect on the action at hand, including the funny-sad ballad, “Weary Old Leary,” about the come-down of “his Hipness” when he realizes what a mess he’s made. My favorite was a melodious love song, delivered apparently as space filler by the patient drummer (Trey Pendergrass revealing a tender, sweet voice) during one of Lord B’s sudden exits.
All the stage effects are homemade and left-field original. I was mostly distracted by Lady B walking back to front with large single letters from half-spelled phrases on a movie marquee. The other stuff works perfectly. Blind Gloucester wears cardboard patches with a black X covering each eye. All Lear’s stormy moors and tortured wanderings are summarized in one blowsy scene, as Buckley and his wife step into low-hanging harnesses at the rear of the stage and fall forward, backward and round and about, while huge Styrofoam packing peanuts fall from above. Gadzooks! And wow.
The fun of the show is in Bryant’s and Locklear’s terrifically synced double-trouble performances. Bryant is always has a compelling presence. His Buckley is all big man moves, a kind of magnificent waltzing bear in a jungle hat—until he falters and freezes up. Locklear is a fascinating actor to watch; his face and body are extraordinarily mobile and fluid—a kind of evolved Jim Carey, less grotesque and more finely tuned to the moment. Here, his Musician is a tight-smiling Nelly, hair slicked back and arms folded in on himself as he musters the confidence to introduce his boss. Ah, but who moves first when the big dude crumbles?
The 90-minute play, like the last performance it emulates, rolls us through with no intermission to the finale, as Lord B reflects somewhat lugubriously on the meaning of truth and friendship and honest council and how all you need is love. Really? What about laughs? The Passing Show delivers big-time on laughs—and you walk out of the theater knowing you’ve witnessed another wild, one-of-a-kind show. Don’t pass it up!