Review: OSF’s ‘Yeomen of the Guard’

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K.T. Vogt as Warden Caruthers and  Michael Sharon as Shadbolt the Jailer in ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ Photo: Jenny Graham.

Ultimately, despite the talent, craft, and ingenious artistic contributions of the cast and crew, and regardless of the boldness, beauty or flat-out genius of a show’s concept, whether or not the thing works is ultimately a matter of taste. What you think is brilliant I might find to be a well-intentioned mess,  and what your neighbor found strange and confusing, your friendly neighborhood theater critic might have praised for its willingness to throw out the rules and embrace the new.

Such is very much the case with ‘The Yeoman of the Guard,’ a play that is already garnering plenty of debate, but is establishing itself as the show people most love to argue about.

Staged in the small Thomas Theater as a wild country hootenanny in the middle of which a British comic opera breaks out. Adapted (read: thoroughly rewritten) by Sean Graney, Andra Velis Simon and Matt Kahler (the latter of whom also directs), the show is done in the same audience-participation style that the collaborators developed for their popular Chicago-based theater company The Hyprocrites.

The key component of a Hypocrites show is the notion of “proscenium seating,’ in which audience members purchase (in advance) a seat on the stage. In this case the stage—surrounded by bank of traditional seating from which the more timid audience members can safely observe—is a kind of over-the-top honkytonk complete with pool table, hay-bales, fully functional rocking horses, and various platforms and planks on which to sit. There is even a working bar at one corner, which remains open during the entire 90-minute show, and yes, audience members are encouraged to go get a beer on tap at any moment they feel like it.

And yes, that’s a little distracting.

And yes, that’s part of the point.

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Anthony Heald plays Deputy Dick Chumlee and Jeremy Peter Johnson (and his signature beard) appears as Fairfax, with onstage audience looking on, in ‘Yeomen of the Guard’         Photo: Jenny Graham.

At a time when theater is simultaneously undergoing a kind of rough restart, as young theater-loving artists work hard to develop new ways of doing theater for a new less-formal generation, this production of ‘invigorating crazy-quilt sense fun that theater, at times, can so brilliantly bring. That it uses methods that were tested in the “underground theaters” of the Sixties and Seventies, doesn’t make it feel any less revolutionary.

The setting of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 125-year-old operetta was the Tower of London, and the story dealt with an innocently convicted man sentenced to die, and the various attempts of local friends, lovers and visiting minstrels to save him. In the OSF version, the story has been given a gleefully cartoonish country western vibe, with names and situations altered wildly to fit the new theme.

The impressive cast is a seamless ensemble of OSF company members and imports from Chicago, and it doesn’t take long to figure out their blend of cartoonish postures and over-the-top emotional distress. Standouts include Michael Sharon as Shadbolt the Jailer, who frequently laments, “I am hideous,” with so much comic despair, it’s hard to know weather to laugh or cry. And then there are the brilliant K.T. Vogt as the avaricious local warden Carruthers and Anthony Heald as the goofily cowboy-ish Deputy Dick Chumlee. Also excellent are Jeremy Peter Johnson as the imprisoned Fairfax (who is almost upstaged by his stunning “signature beard”), Kate Hurster as Elsie, a wandering country singer who becomes involved in the plot to save Fairfax, and Britney Simpson as both Phoebe Meryll, who loves Fairfax (The way she says “I love him” is like a three course meal of dead-serious emoting) and Crazy Kate, whose name fits.

Then there’s the dialogue, which includes much of Gilbert’s tongue-twisty wordplay, but throws in such corn-fed bon mots as “That’s sweeter than a squirrel playin’ Scrabble with a kitten!” The cast rises nicely to this heightened level of lunacy, all of them playing musical instruments to accompany the abbreviated versions of the giddy, word-drunk G&S songs, which work surprisingly well as country western tunes.

But the star of the show is the concept.

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The audience is right in the thick of things in OSF’s ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’               Photo: Jenny Graham.

With 70 extra human beings on stage, most of them sitting in places the cast occasionally needs to stand, there is a sense of controlled mayhem and traffic control going on at all times, with people standing up to get out of the way of singing and dancing actors, then looking for another place to sit. One enterprising youth discovered a safe spot near the pool table, under which she’d duck whenever she saw the actors coming.

Does any of this enhance the story or add to the dramatic arcs of the characters? Of course not. Eventually, the experience is only half about watching the story unfold, and half about watching a brave and bold band of performers pull it all off. For the purists, there are always other productions that focus on the plot and the music. For those looking to remember that theater, at its heart—and certainly in Shakespeare’s time—always felt a little bit dangerous, immoral and wrong, this is the show for you.

★★★½

Click ‘Here‘ to read full set of OSF reviews in the North Bay Bohemian

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