Thursday, 22 May 2014

Werewolf Priest! The Lamentable Ballad of Father Hank Grimby - The Blue Room Theatre (21 May 2014)

Tired of city living? Considering a move to the countryside? Here’s a real estate tip: don’t EVER relocate to a place described as a “sleepy” hamlet, village or town, clearly code for “place where people die horrible, inexplicable deaths”! This is certainly the case for the “sleepy hamlet” of Huntersville where the yokels are dropping like Sandra Bullock in a Chinese space capsule.   

Fortunately, local priest Hank Grimby is merely mauled… oh, hang on a second! He survives only to become, unbeknownst to himself and the town, a werewolf…

I must confess the werewolf myth fascinates me and is a story arc I use in my own writing to explore the theme of transformation in various ways. In a werewolf tale someone gets ‘bitten’, undergoes a transformation they cannot control, and invariably hurt the ones they love most with tragic consequences. Here, writer-director-producer Levon Polinelli has chosen that someone to be a man of God thereby adding a layer of irony – a symbol of goodness is doomed to commit evil acts most foul every full moon.

But our priest, Hank Grimby (Sven Ironside), is not without sin. He is secretly in love with the Mayor’s daughter (Siobhan Dow-Hall) who is unexpectedly betrothed to renowned explorer (at least in his own mind) George Waggner (Magnus Danger Magnus) who is shortly to arrive in Huntersville. As the death toll mounts, Waggner goes all Quint on the townspeople and promises to kill the beast much to Grimby’s discomfort once he discovers he is in fact said beast. As Grimby frantically searches for a cure to Lycanthropy – announced by the town Doctor (Stephen Lee) to be a potion made from a rare flower – Waggner appeals to the Mayor (AJ Lowe) to unleash his sense of vengeance. Unwitting patsy, Tomas (Daniel Buckle), aids Waggner in his quest for glory.

What to make of this strange beast? Part musical, part melodrama, part comedy, part horror, it is a quirky hybrid that somehow manages to work despite its disparate parts.

Melodrama infuses the forbidden love story between priest and the mayor’s daughter. Already an illicit liaison, the announcement that the Mayor has chosen a husband for his daughter – and asked Grimby to perform the marriage ceremony no less – adds to Grimby’s lament. There are strong moments between the two lovers with Dow-Hall an earnest and tender presence with a lovely singing voice.

The comedy comes courtesy of a larger-than-life Waggner played in scene chewing fashion by Magnus, colourful costume, knife fetish, and all. Lee’s Teutonic doctor also adds plenty of humour with his ‘autopsy’ of a victim a delight.

The original songs and music are strong but this felt more like a play with songs rather than a fully formed musical. There seemed to be the opportunity to have different types of songs assigned to more characters. Waggner’s tall tales about his travels to far flung places such as Patagonia felt ripe for such a treatment as did either the Doctor’s autopsy scene or when he is making his potions. Indeed, Lee ad libs an excerpt from The Skeleton Song at the beginning of the latter scene. Grimby’s songs are mainly of the unrequited love or unsurpassed guilt variety with a ghostly duet early in the second act a highlight. Waggner’s musical pitch to the townsfolk to kill the beast was also memorable.

The horror comes via the deaths of various townsfolk (including Rhianna Hall and Tiffany Swan) and the arrival on stage of the fearsome werewolf. A lot of time and effort is spent setting an ominous mood with the use of lighting, smoke, music cues, and sound effects. It all ends in a climatic final battle that is equal parts high energy and high camp.

This is another quirk of Werewolf Priest – the tone tends to swing wildly. Talking to members of the cast afterwards, they pointed to a particular scene where the audience laugh in the first act and, in their words, suddenly realise that this is funny. This initial uncertainty may be due to the different genres being deployed and the range of acting from over-the-top theatricality to earnest melodrama. Ironside works hard in the title role but others have far showier parts with him the anchor for their antics.

It’s an enjoyable production with plenty of twists and surprises but somehow it feels like it should be bigger, more over the top, with more songs and more, well, werewolf, damn it! It will be interesting to see if it develops into this over time as it has a clear filmic influence in both staging and content with the small Blue Room stage barely able to contain Polinelli’s wild ambition.

Written and directed by Levon Polinelli with Ash Gibson Greig as composer, Werewolf Priest! The Lamentable Ballad of Hank Grimby is on at the Blue Room until 7 June, featuring Sven Ironside, Siobhan Dow-Hall, Magnus Danger Magnus, Stephen Lee, Adrian Lowe, Daniel Buckle, Rhianna Hall, Tiffany Swan and Ayden Doherty.

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