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Web Onstage: Madness and Beauty

Ovation's Valhalla has a split personality

By Rick Pender · October 11th, 2006 · Web Onstage

If you don't know the plays of Paul Rudnick, you should: He's a very funny guy, able to generate great quips at the slightest turn of events. Valhalla, a play he created in 2004, is a fine example of humor if not theater in its current production by Ovation Theatre Company.

The show, which is slightly more than two hours long, is two stories that run parallel until the last 15 minutes or so, when they begin to crisscross madly. One story is the more or less true account of Ludwig II, the "mad king" of Bavaria, a 19th-century monarch who was likely gay and certainly obsessed with Richard Wagner's operas (especially Lohengrin, which provides some inspiration and for this story) and with spending extravagant sums of money to build even more extravagant reproductions of buildings from the past -- including a Greek temple and the castle of Neuschwanstein, which most Americans would think of as a forerunner of something from Disneyland. He was deposed by a government who feared national bankruptcy. Michael Monks plays this showy role in Valhalla with reckless abandon and a glint in his eye. He's the most watchable actor onstage in this production.

The second tale is set in Dainsville, Texas, in the Depression where a bisexual teenager gets into various sexual and behavioral scrapes because he really doesn't fit in.

James Avery (Blake Gehring) is established as a kind of kindred spirit to Ludwig -- two men whom no one understands and who spend their lives pursuing something unattainable through very different means.

Of course the interwoven storyline is far-fetched, and its resolution is creaky, unbelievable and sentimental in a way that seems out of kilter with the play's flippant tone. (Rudnick has written better plays; Jeffrey, which Ovation has previously staged, has a similar tone but is much more coherent.) But there's much about this production that's fun to watch.

Four actors play a variety of roles. Most watchable is Christine Dye (who has shown her talent previously, winning a Cincinnati Entertainment Award in 2003 for her work in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine) who plays the mother of both James and Ludwig, in addition to a horsy British princess Ludwig rejects for marriage and especially a Jewish tour guide from Long Island taking a group through Ludwig's mad architectural creations inspired by the anti-Semitic composer Wagner. Dye is a comic actress with tremendous versatility and balance.

Jason Burgess is Henry Lee Stafford, an uncertain young man from Texas who Avery pursues; he's also an enthusiastic opera singer who Ludwig beds. Amy Harpring does a ton of costume changing as the girl that Avery and Stafford fight for, as the hunchbacked Princess Sophie who Ludwig connects with, as Marie Antoinette and several others. Don Volpenheim mostly plays Pfeiffer, Ludwig's stolid manager, but he has several comic turns in other roles, as a preacher, a tough-talking sergeant and especially as "Ursula the Unusual."

I wish Valhalla hung together a bit more, because it has a lovely message about the power of love and beauty. Unfortunately, Rudnick is more concerned with making us laugh than delivering this thought. When he tries to knit it together at the end, it feels almost as mad as one of Ludwig's projects. But I guarantee you'll laugh along the way. Grade: B-

VALHALLA, presented by Ovation Theatre Company, continues through Oct. 21 at the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater.


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