Not everyone may feel as strongly as the president on this matter, but a public opinion poll would probably reveal that a majority of Washingtonians have had it with killer-rabbit jokes.
There is a killer-rabbit joke in "More From Story Theatre." That's the bad news. The worse news is that it's one of the high points of the show, at least as the show stood last night, its opening night at the Eisenhower Theater.
If "More From Story Theatere" were a drug, it would be a mild sedative, available without prescription.
Creator/director Paul Sills and a company of eight actors have taken an international assortment of folk tales and dramatized them in the "Story Theater" mode, with narration, action and dialogue intertwined. Since the tales have been put together by improvisation, further changes are inevitable. The work that leaves Washington next month could be a great deal livelier than the one that arrived here last night, but that would be small consolation to those who pay $10 and up to be experimented on.
One cause for optimism is the cast, a skilled comic ensemble capable of pumping zany life into ho-hum material. So far, however, they seem content to play most of their tales fairly straight -- to straight for comfort, anyway. And the tales themselves are a weak-fisted lot.
From "The Arabian Nights," for instance, we are treated to "The Dream of Good Fortune," in which a humble Baghdad dung-sweeper is visited by an angel who tells him to proceed to Cairo in search of his fortune. So he heads for Cairo, where he is mistaken for a thief and arrested. But a merciful policeman releases him, telling him to return home; after all, says the policeman, he himself had a similar dream in which he was summoned to Baghdad and told that he would find a priceless treasure hidden under a poor dung-sweeper's stove.
So the dung-sweeper goes back to Baghdad, looks under his stove and finds the treasure. Roger and blackout.
The original "Story Theater" was evidently oriented toward children. This time around, Sills has chosen tales that are a bit too whimsical for most children and, in some cases, a bit too childlike for most adults. Unfortunately, children and adults accounted for most of last night's audience.
When the show works, it is because several of the tales, beyond their raw charm, offer the actors real room for improvisational maneuvers.
"The Tar Baby," for example, casts the five principals as animals of the forest, and each of them has a pantomimical field day. Richard Schaal, a man you will remember from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoffs, makes a particularly jolly ape, and Regina Baff makes a particularly dour squirrel. And, it must be confessed, Hamilton Camp makes a wonderfully manic rabbit, even if he appears to be the party responsible for the obligatory killer-rabbit joke.
The first three tales that follow the intermission keep the show on the high road charted by "The Tar Baby," and suggest what it could become with a good deal of enterprising alteration and substitution. "The Three Travelers," with Camp, Mina Kolb and Richard Libertini (the Senor Wenceslike South American dictator in "The In-Laws") as a team of traveling players, is particularly successful. (A Grimm Brothers product, this tale has the devil, played by Schaal, committing the trio to answer any and all questions with these invariable lines: "The three of us -- for the money -- that's right." Soon, needless to say, they are accused of murdering an old merchant and forced to incriminate themselves at their trial.)
But like this tale, many of its less entertaining companions make heavy -- and, to some tastes, excessive -- use of irony, the timeless, placeless medium of the folk-tale teller. Every story seems to hinge on some sort of role reversal, comeuppance or unexpected reward, and after a while the surprises are not as surprising as they might be.
If this is "More From Story Theater," more still is required.