As I sit stone-faced in this hysterical crowd, watching the knights of Camelot cavort with corpses, grovel before an exasperated Jehovah and suffer under the nasty, big, pointy teeth of the deadly bunny of Caerbannog, I suddenly realize a dark truth about myself: When it comes to the absurd, I'm kind of a snob. There's something stuck-up about my attitude toward all things ridiculous. I am dead serious about silliness.
Let me make one thing clear: My veneration of Monty Python skates dangerously close to religious conviction. The 1969-born British troupe's style of comedy changed my life the way the Grateful Dead or JD Salinger or Buddha changed others'. This is why, as you read on, you might encounter a twinge of venom. Call me a stick-in-the-swamp, but I will never stop insisting that there's a right and a wrong way to slap a man with a fish.
Monty Python's Spamalot is a Broadway adaptation of the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "lovingly ripped off" by one of the troupe's six founding members, Eric Idle. Since opening in 2005, the production has seen great success. This week it razes Missoula Community Theatre's stage under the direction of Michael McGill, whose outstanding cast of local talent proves the theater company knows how to put on a show. You're in for vibrant and dynamic set pieces, top-shelf costumes and a splendid live orchestra conducted by David Cody and McGill. The lighting and colors dazzle, the levity couldn't be more levitated, and no one is afraid to let their freak flag fly.
So what's my problem? Why can't I just enjoy the fun like everyone else? To this I invoke my friend Brad Wilson, who, when faced with any form of humor that didn't quite live up to its potential, would insist, "It's the wrong kind of silly, dammit!"
In comedy, timing is everything. How and when a joke ends is as important as the content it delivers. Spamalot's vilest comedic crime is that it doesn't know when to quit. "I'm not dead yet" is one example that doesn't need to live forever and it certainly doesn't need its own song. Once the element of surprise goes away, the humor deflates. When the Knights Who Say Ni change their name to something much longer and harder for Arthur to recall, it's funny. When "much longer" becomes 30 seconds of random syllables strung together until you want to dig your own grave right there in the auditorium, it's just stupid. It's almost insulting that Eric Idle feels we need our attention so blatantly directed toward a punchline in order to get it. And I'm not even going to touch the lazy scrounging for laughs in a borderline-racist song about Broadway Jews. Spamalot parades brilliant Monty Python routines onstage like a sad, sagging snow job sacrificed to the gods of glitz. It's the wrong kind of silly.
And yet the curtain closed to a happy crowd. When the lights came up I found myself looking at a lot of smiles. What makes a show like this worthwhile is the elevation of community spirit, and at the end of the day it's better that we're laughing than crying. I'm not trying to discourage that. MCT's production deserves high praise for pulling together a show of this magnitude, for bombastic set pieces and zany special effects like hacking off legs and severing heads. The orchestra and backup dancers are on point and full of energy.
I've got to hand it to Spamalot's cast for doing justice to the shreds of genuine Python that remain. In his role as Tim the Enchanter, Tully Thibeau's Scottish accent alone is worth the price of admission. Arthur Milliken's characters, Herbert's Father and Dennis' Mother, are dead ringers for original performers Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Nathan McTague, whether as Bedevere or Head Ni Knight, hits all the right notes with his singular shrill voice. Jacob Sefcak as Sir Robin and Reid Reimers as Lancelot dish out unrestrained wackiness in delicious contrast to focused "straight-man" work from Howard Kingston's King Arthur and R. Eric Prim's Patsy. Eden Atwood's Lady of the Lake is a magnet for the spotlight with her sultry singing voice and precise-yet-subtle comic glances. Charisma coats the stage and the show explodes in spectacle.
But if Eric Idle were here I'd still thumb wrestle him to the ground for mangling the artistry he helped create. When confronted with the fact that some of the other Python guys weren't too keen on his show either, Idle's response was, "I'm making them money, and the ungrateful bastards never thank me. Who gave them a million dollars each for Spamalot?"
Maybe my snobbery misses the point, maybe not. But at least I'll never be as far off the mark as that joker.
Spamalot continues at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Thu. Nov. 14–Sat., Nov 16, at 7:30 PM and Sun., Nov. 17, at 6:30 PM, with Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 PM. $15–$21. Tickets available at the MCT box office, online at mctinc.org or at 728-7529. Not recommended for children.