Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007

‘Fantasticks:’ Still controversial

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On Friday, The Fredericktowne Players kicked off its 39th season with ‘‘The Fantasticks” at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater in Frederick.

Directed and choreographed by Chris Causer, who has been preparing to direct this show since he was 15, ‘‘The Fantasticks” stands as the longest running musical in the world.

Causer embraced quite an undertaking to pull off a play with such a long-standing history. Written by Harvey Schmidt, with a score by Tom Jones, the play began running eight times a week in 1960, concluding its run in 2002.

It’s a simple and playful variation of the Romeo and Juliet theme — two families who are supposedly enemies defying their children to fall in love. But as any parent knows, your child will do the very thing you forbid them to do.

Two fathers, Bellomy, played by DC Cathro, and Hucklebee, played by Bruce Gruber, have built a wall between their homes to keep their children — Luisa, tenderly played by TJ senior Madeline Hicks, and young Kurt Russell lookalike Shayne Kenneth Jones as Matt — from falling in love.

Between thick stones, the two talk of forbidden love and hopeless dreams with the wall between them seeming to widen as their love for one another grows.

A conscious effort has been made to incorporate a variety of theatrical techniques, such as the early Greek’s use of a narrator. Here, that narrator is pirate and rogue, El Gallo, played by the mysterious and smoldering Clay Comer, intermittently disrupting characters’ lives and giving them pause as they question the paths they follow. Comer’s voice was powerful and strong; his presence felt even before he made entrance.

Hilariously portraying the story’s pair of ‘‘old” actors are 35-year FTP stage veteran Charlie Smith as Henry and Ian Fowler, in his Fredericktowne Players debut, as Mortimer.

As The Mute, the delightful and spritely C. Lynch undoubtedly had the most difficult part of all, dancing and flittering her way around the stage with the grace of a young ballerina as she silently handed the actors props and costumes, all the while serving as a muse to Luisa.

Back in the 60’s, during the show’s initial run, substantial controversy surrounded the song ‘‘It Depends on What You Pay.” The tune precedes a scene in which the fathers conspire with El Gallo to stage a mock kidnapping of Bellomy’s daughter, Luisa, in the hopes that Matt will come to her rescue.

The word ‘‘rape” is used repeatedly throughout the song in such instances as a ‘‘Venetian rape,” ‘‘Gothic rape,” or a ‘‘drunken rape.” During intermission, I overheard several women commenting on the word’s usage, both unnerved and disgusted by it. I also saw some couples leave mumbling expletives about the wording and the ‘‘glorification of such a violent act.”

If substituted with the word ‘‘raid,” as done in some previous stagings, the song may have been less offensive and just as effective.

Curious, I asked Comer about the choice.

‘‘We knew it was controversial but we went back and forth about using the word and we decided to keep it in,” he said. ‘‘We are hoping the audience sees that we mean it as to abduct, to seize or capture.”

Although that may be one meaning, it certainly didn’t come off that way. Bad call in my opinion.

Another scene showed Mortimer dressed as a Hollywood-style Indian, complete with feathers in his cap and a hand over mouth, sounding like a wild savage.

That, too, caused controversy over the years, with the Players’ opening night being no exception.

I happened to be seated next to a Native American who was visibly offended by the portrayal. She told me afterward that she was upset to see ‘‘her people” stereotyped that way.

Are we being overly politically correct and sensitive or are playwrights and lyricists not taking genders and nationalities into concern as they write these plays?

‘‘The Fantasticks” is a story about tearing down walls and finding yourself and others on the other side. But as in life, once the veil of mystery is torn away, disillusionment may enter into your safe and secure world. As the wise words of El Gallo remind us, ‘‘You must always leave the wall.”

Some things are better with a little mystery. I agree.

‘The Fantasticks’

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jack B. Kussmaul Theatre, 7932 Opossumtown Pike, Frederick

Tickets: $22 for adults, $16 for students, seniors and military with ID, $8 for children 12 and younger