In an essay for the New York Times several years ago, critic Charles Isherwood wondered if having dancer Billy Elliot soar off the ground in the musical that bears his name was necessary, because of the extra dosage of sentimentality injected.
It's a good question, but one thing's for sure: You can't underestimate the power of flight.
By that, I don't mean the suggestion of an aviatrix taking off in an airplane, a contraption that we know can fly; or even some fairytale princess carried across the stage in a giant bubble doohickey. There's something about the thought of humans taking off with the help of feathers, as if some otherworldly bird with a massive wingspan. It really does lift the spirit.
That's what happens in the second act of Matthew Posey's latest original play, Umlauf's Bicycle, which he also directs and is now playing at the Ochre House. It's based on the Greek myth of Icarus, the guy whose artisan father, Daedalus, made him a set of wings so that he could escape Crete. You know the story: The dad warned the son not to get too close to that flaming ball in the sky, because the sun's heat would melt the wax that held the wings together. And, well, do we ever listen to sage advice?
If you're familiar with Mastermind Posey's work, you know he's not going to take a straightforward approach with any story he adapts and/or concocts. This one starts off shaky, so much so that it's easy to dismiss it as another of Posey's shows that seem created just for him and his friends to have fun with bad manners and naughty words, á la his Coppertone series.
Posey plays Umlauf, the Daedalus character, who wears overalls and carries around his pet duck, which he calls "duck-butter." His son Icarus (Justin Locklear), "dumb as a box of hammers," speaks in a little boy voice reminiscent of the Stuart character Michael McDonald played on MADtv. Icarus falls for nerdy girl Twinky (Elizabeth Evans), daughter of King Minos, flamboyantly played by Kevin Grammer with a lisp. There are nods to the mythology, including a Minotaur and a hilarious video portrayal of a Samuel L. Jackson-esque Poseidon (Trent Stephenson). That sequence incorporates cute, if minor, shadow puppetry.
What takes it into Posey-world are the Marx Brothers. Here, they have Greeky names, played by Mitchell Parrack (Winkus, or Groucho), Ross Mackey (Blinkus/Chico) and Trent Stephenson (Nodus/Harpo).
What are they doing in this story? The easy answer: Why not?
Artists can quickly mire in the drama of the cautionary tales of ancient myth. Who better to provide comic relief than one of the greatest comedy teams ever? Plus, there's a nifty, unspoken tie-in with Umlauf's pet duck; the idea of feathers and a creature that migrates from one place for warmer weather via epic flight; and the Marx Brothers' most famous film, the 1933 classic Duck Soup.
In this play, the Marx bits are hysterical, and the trio of Parrack, Mackey and Stephenson capture each of brothers' essences and comic timing. Some of it is so silly you can't help but laugh. ("Does he want a cracker?/He's a duck, he already has a quacker.") They also add a memorable and quirky soundtrack to the proceedings, playing instruments both traditional (guitar, stand-up bass) and not (my favorite: the crank of a ratchet). The original music is by Mackey, with lyrics by Parrack.
It's all good fun. Then we get to that second act, in which the Icarus myth takes a more serious tone (but there's still solid Marxist punning) and the wings come out—as do goose bumps in the audience.
It's not enough that, in the tiny Ochre House, the crew has rigged it so that the Marx brothers ride on winged bicycles above the stage floor. Icarus finally gets his set of wings, and it's a huge and rather amazing creation. Anyone who's planning a production of Angels in America might want to rent the wings from Posey. They're that beautiful. A smaller pair has also been constructed for Twinky, who has transformed from geek girl to Greek goddess, with Evans charming all the way through her journey.
The flying bicycles (Radio Flyers?) are wonderfully whimsical—think E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, but without the schmaltzy score. But then Icarus gets his turn, and it's pure poetry, the kind of theatrical magic that you won't ever forget.
This might be the show that puts Posey and his cohorts in the stratosphere.