THE BASICS: PHILOSOPHUS, the world premiere comedy by Colin Speer Crowley, directed by Neal Radice, runs until October 6, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 at the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley (which connects Pearl and Main Streets along the north wall of Shea’s) (852-2600). www.alleyway.com Runtime: 2 hours with one short intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: In PHILOSOPHUS we meet Voltaire, the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, who, with his trusted but beaten down companion Collini, is on the run. It seems Voltaire has stolen a treasured notebook of very personal, somewhat compromising, poems written by Frederick The Great. Now the monarch’s men have him surrounded in the German town of Frankfurt. PHILOSOPHUS is last year’s winner of the Alleyway’s annual Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition and it’s a delightful romp.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Employing many tongue-in-cheek moments, and, if not always “breaking the fourth wall” at least peeking around it and over it constantly, this is a far funnier show than you might think based on a subject most of us haven’t thought about since college. If you think “a play about a dead philosopher? I’m not so sure!” I would only ask you to describe the plot of, say HAMILTON (Founding Fathers argue), or COME FROM AWAY (9/11 flights re-routed to Gander), or EVITA (1940s South American politics) to realize that it’s not the subject, it’s how it’s presented.
In this comedy, Voltaire is presented affectionately, but absolutely full of himself. If this Voltaire had traveled to the U.S. (he died in 1778) as did Oscar Wilde 100 years later, he too might have said to the customs agent: “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Yeah, he’s pompous, but so convinced of his brilliance that it’s all great fun, and especially as acted by Chris Handley, whose timing and movements and facial expressions and general “theatrical intelligence” keep this play bubbling along.
Truth be told, this Voltaire is much more akin to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the conniving over-confident rascal who says whatever he needs to in order to avoid the next crisis. And, just as the Don abused his manservant, Lepporello, Voltaire, while delivering speeches about “freedom” treats his man “Collini” as a slave.
Unlike Don Giovanni, though, Voltaire is not ruled by temptations of the flesh. And what temptations they are in the form of “Mademoiselle Denis,” a young lady who frankly likes men. A lot. She is played by Emily Yancey, last year nominated for an Artie Award for her lead in the Alleyway’s KILLER RACK, a musical about breast augmentation gone awry. This year, using what Mother Nature has provided and Joyce Stilson’s costume has endowed, Emily continues the tradition, to the delight of “Collini” and “Dorn,” the servant and henchman of Voltaire and Baron Von Freytag respectively.
These two characters – “Collini” and “Dorn” – are played with Jack-Benny-quality deadpan by the same actor – Andrew Zuccari – whose mustache comes and goes and whose comic timing is a cut above.
And, he’s back in drag! After far too long, the inimitable Chris Standart appears on stage again in full length gown and fabulous wig, this time as Frau Schmidt, a member of the German aristocracy who has a keen eye on what’s important. Philosophy? No! Sex? No! It’s M-O-N-E-Y.
By the way, all of the wonderful wigs were made by the Alleyway’s own James Cichocki, who also plays “Baron Von Freytag,” the boss of the long-suffering “Dorn” and the man chasing the fugitive Voltaire with Javert-like focus.
I should also mention the set by Neil Radice, which felt more “complete” or “fully dressed” than we sometimes get at more minimalist Alleyway productions. It was clever and suited the action. I was particularly charmed by the small confessional-style window through which “Frau Schmidt” and “Baron Von Freytag” converse.
Again, it’s a solid romp, presented with high energy, so don’t be put off for a second by the “topic” but go for the laughs.
UP NEXT: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Alleyway, December 8 to 23. Emily Yancey who plays “Mademoiselle Denis” will be in THE TAMING presented by Brazen-Faced Varlets at the Alleyway Cabaret space October 19 to November 3. And, Chris Handley who plays Voltaire will be in TALLEY’S FOLLEY at the Jewish Repertory Theatre February 7 – March 3, 2019.
Photos courtesy Alleyway
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!