Fort Worth — Amphibian Stage Productions has the right idea: it’s too hot to think hard. Time for some midsummer night’s silliness—and The Nosemaker’s Apprentice: Chronicles of a Medieval Plastic Surgeon has plenty of goofy laughs. Like every story told by the boozy guy who corners you at a party, it goes on a bit, and there are comic hits and misses. Still, the funny keeps coming back in this script from Nick Jones (Orange is the New Black) and Rachel Shukert (Everything is Going to Be Great). Keep a drink in hand and a friend to laugh with, and you’ll come out happy.
Imagine that the knights of Monty Python and the Holy Grail are limping back from their quests, missing a limb here (“No, I’m not!”), a nose there, and some “minor appendages” they’d really like to have back. According to this tall tale spun by Father (Jay Duffer) to his wide-eyed little daughter (Alexandra Lawrence), first stop after the pub would be the local “nosemaker”—a medieval craftsman who could supply a wooden nose, a Phantom-style face, and have them up and running again.
But a boy named Gavin (Scott Zenreich) changes the game forever. Rescued from the Ivanhoe Workhouse for Criminally Impoverished Boys by nosemaker Wulfric (Brandon Murphy), Gavin is the “apprentice” of the title. He falls for the boss’s daughter Amelia (also Lawrence), the “most beautiful and only girl” he’s ever seen, but soon is sent away to learn “the best of pseudo-science” at the Nosemakers Academy in Vienna. Talented Gavin thinks he can do better than wooden noses: he develops techniques using animal bits and alchemy to craft a more natural line of replacement parts. Gavin’s skill with Ye Olde Nip/Tuck eventually brings him to the attention of the Queen of France (also Murphy), whose royal fatness has been the impossible ideal of beauty held up to the starving masses. Now, to her shock, thin suddenly is in, and she wants a supermodel-sleek new look from Gavin.
You’d be wrong to think there was a Python-esque subtext running through the play. No, nothing so subtle here: the MP shout-outs are right in the open, what with coconuts making the sound of clopping horse hooves, and a traveler loudly arguing with the guard manning a huge gate. And there’s a hint of The Princess Bride in the storytelling setup and comedy stylings, too.
The Nosemaker’s Apprentice reunites Duffer, Murphy and Zenreich, the writer/director and two actors of The ‘Phibs 2013 summer show, The Bible: The Complete Word of God (ABRIDGED). Playwright/actor Duffer gives a comic lesson in the gradations of “in the bag”—a little unsteady of speech at the start, his gestures and volume grow larger and more frantic as one drink follows another. Trying his best to narrate this shaggy dog of a story, he keeps mixing in fragments of his own history as a “rogue” med student and unlicensed surgeon. Lawrence is wide-eyed and appalled as his eight-year-old captive audience, but keeps a skeptical eye out for unlikely plot points. These days, apparently, even third graders can be a tough room.
Laid-back Murphy steals the show; he has tremendous comic timing, and is gleefully diverting in a grab-bag of different roles: he’s Gavin’s two wizardish mentors, Wulfric and the Viennese Ulrich—the latter with a “Baba Wawa” speech quirk that’s non-PC but hilarious. “Wissen to your hands!” he exhorts the young craftsman. Murphy also plays a peacocking French nosemaker and the monstrously self-absorbed Queen of France, whose yen for big boobs leads to even stranger ideas, like horns and a tail. (Faustian bargain, anyone?)
Lanky Murphy and quick, boyish Zenreich make a funny Bert-and-Ernie pair. Gavin is extremely orphaned—telling Wulfric that his mother “died long before I was born”—and even as he buffs up and chases the girls across medieval Europe, Zenreich never loses that little-boy-lost quality. Lawrence is pretty as Gavin’s sweetheart Amelia; she’s a dryly funny analyst of her world, but isn’t really given much to do but wait for word from Gavin, who’s somehow too busy to write…for years.
John Forkner, last seen as put-upon Todd in Amphibian’s Death Tax, gets plenty of mileage from his zany turns as everyone else in the story: gatekeeper, courier, receptionist, Gavin’s sidekick, and best of all Arnold-Gunther, a fellow student in Vienna with a suspiciously Schwartzenegger-ish delivery. His full-frontal comic assault makes for nice energy, and is a neat counterpoint to Murphy’s more controlled (but equally funny) style.
The hanging burlap panels and unfinished wood-slat backdrops of Sean Urbantke’s set design have a “This is the Middle Ages” look, and Derek Whitener’s early-scene costumes are equally earth-toned. But as Father’s story becomes more outrageous, so do the costumes, notably Ulrich’s puffy-hat, fur-trimmed scholar’s gown, and the hoop-skirted, wiggy getup of the French Queen, so tricked-out she can’t figure out how to sit down. David Lanza goes above and beyond with some insanely grotesque sound effects: squooshy foot sounds for a long walk through an underground chamber awash with “human secretions”—and a noise that yes, sounds exactly like “fake breasts filled with French butter” exploding.
Director David A. Miller, who made a good job of Amphibian’s Wittenburg and Gutenberg! The Musical! clearly knows what to do with wacky—but in Nosemaker has a script that isn’t quite as clever as it could be. Some of the second act noticeably flags; that may be “settling in” for the cast, but also might mean the script needs a boost from more/zanier bits of stage business. And it runs a bit long: Nosemaker would play better as a 90-minute show sans intermission; it’s hard to get the antic energy going after the break.
There’s some kind of postmodernist, possibly generational thing going on here. Like a lot of young comedy writers, Jones and Shukert seem to believe that trying too hard for “clever” isn’t cool. Somewhere in this play, there’s a satire on our obsession with beauty, but the script never really gets pointed about it. And if you’re going to talk about great honking noses and other “needs work” conditions, why not let Dad drag his Nosemaker’s history through the rest of the literary canon: where are the Cyrano or Richard III jokes, the riffs on Hunchback of Notre Dame or Gogol’s The Nose?
OK, maybe that’s another play. But the point is: sometimes, keeping cool might mean that a good comedy idea doesn’t (quite) turn into a barn-burner.