For the past two years, the Folger Theatre has given itself the altogether curious mission of introducing the British pantomime into Washington's holiday customs. Last year it was "Cinderella," a traditional pantomime; last night it was "Crossed Words," an original pantomime by Hugh Atkins and Mike Laflin.
With the novelty fast wearing off, it can be reported that progress is distinctly not being made. In fact, on the accumulated evidence, pantomime, old or new, stands about as much chance of catching on here as suet pie.
And the evidence does accumulate rapidly in "Crossed Words," which opened to a thunderous absence of laughs and the sort of half-baked audience participation that suggests an audience really would prefer not to clap along merrily, if you don't mind.
Pantomime draws its inspiration from the Commedia dell' Arte, British music hall and pop music, with additional influence of late from television. But it seems to be one big gallimaufry, into which all is tossed, including the theatrical equivalent of the kitchen sink. "Crossed Words" follows pretty much the standard recipe -- chipper tunes, a cockamamie plot, low puns, extravagant disguises, outlandish characters, exotic settings, magic tricks and a spot of love interest. Tantalizing as that may sound in theory, it proves deadening in practice.
The jokes are uniformly rotten ("We're going no place." "Really? When?"). While the authors make a feeble stab at localizing the humor, for every quip about Washington there appear to be two about Australia. The songs and lyrics are desperately extroverted, rather like a manic hostess who is trying to keep a failing party alive. In the right hands, the magic tricks might be beguiling, but here they are performed with such hesitant panache as to make you wonder, periodically, if they aren't supposed to go wrong.
The plot doesn't make a grain of sense -- not that it is intended to. But it makes no sense charmlessly. The action is set on "Leisure Island," a tropical penal colony ruled by a blustery governor, Sir Reginald Stamford-Depletions (Floyd King, looking like Napoleon Bonaparte reflected in a fun house mirror) and his wife (Mikel Lambert, all got up in red and purple and looking like a Cripple Creek bordello). The greedy, socially ambitious Stamford-Depeletions, riotously referred to at one point as the Stamford-Excretions, have incurred the enmity of a rotund villain, Chukka Gobrotte. (His name is pronounced "Gorotte" because, as Jim Beard is obliged to repeat more times than is healthy for a living actor, "the 'b' is silent.")
Gobrotte, you see, has gone to all the trouble of compiling the titillating memoirs of the island prisoners, but before he can sell them to the National Inspirer, the Stamford-Depletions get hold of them and sell them to Digger Murdoch instead. (Why am I telling you this?) Revenge is only a question of time and the available props. Out of such a comic molehill, Atkins and Laflin build more comic molehills. Forget about mountains. There isn't a hummock in sight.
There are, however, two oversized ostriches, Grubbie and Length, who act as the henchmen of Chukka Gobrotte (the 'b' is silent). They get to wear cute hats, warble "Chukka Don't Know What the Big Birds Know" and do a soft shoe in a pool of light. The governor has an efficient secretary, Lettice Preigh (!), who sings of her frustrated love for the governor's son and levitates on her high notes. Every time the warden of the island, a gentle dreamer, mentions the word "verisimilitude," he conjures up a ragtag pirate crew. The pirate cuties are sanitized Bob Fosse chorines, while the pirate king is Michael Tolaydo slumming and, from the look of it, embarrassed as all blazes.
"Crossed Swords" was initially staged by Davey Marlin-Jones (WDVM-TV's theater and movie critic), who withdrew from the production a week ago due to what is politely termed "artistic differences." The direction is now credited to anonymous "producers of the Folger Theatre," who have succeeded only in whipping the show into a loud noise. I'll admit a passing fondness for the ostriches (Roderick Horn and Richard Hart) and a certain gratitude for David Cromwell's sweet restraint, as the island warden. Rob Bowman, presiding over the three-piece orchestra, plays a mean piano. Most of the other performers, however, give the impression that they are engaged in some emergency room life-saving procedure and that time is running out. Fun, when it is presented this frantically, is exhausting.
The governor's wife, sawed in half, grimaces acutely. The convicts do a leaden tap dance. Two sword fighters walk away from their swords, which continue fighting all by themselves. The governor cracks lousy jokes and then explodes with hilarity. Gobrotte's name gets mispronounced for the umpteenth time. And so it goes -- a hodgepodge run amok.
"Crossed Swords" really is insane (the 's' is silent).
CROSSED SWORDS. By Hugh Atkins and Mike Laflin. Sets and lighting, Lewis Folden; costumes, Paige Southard; musical direction, Rob Bowman; choreography, Virginia Freeman; magic consultant, Richard I. Bloch. With Floyd King, Michael Howell, Mikel Lambert, Edward Gero, Lucinda Hitchcock Crane, Jim Beard, David Cromwell, Michael Tolaydo, Richard Hart, Roderick Horn. At the Folger Theatre through Jan. 6.