Aug. 25--Once upon a time, men acted with chivalry, women displayed dignity and politicians exuded trust (well, maybe that was a very long time ago). But none of that is the case this year in The Santa Fe Playhouse's annual Fiesta Melodrama, alternatively titled Game of Groans or Last Train to Artsville or Zozobra for Dummies or Hot Massage on the Sexually Oriented Express or No Country Music for Old Men. The first title fits it best, the third one is pretty accurate and the last one makes no sense at all given the content.
Directed by Andy Primm and written by a cadre of anonymous scribes who, given the overall quality of the jokes, may do best to stay in hiding, this melodrama takes comedic potshots at politicians, the quality of public education, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, Zozobra, slimy masseurs, the Albuquerque Police Department, the city's plastic-bag ban and some local restaurants. But in opening fire on just about everything eligible for spoofing, the show fires a lot of blanks.
The plot: Train conductor Bertjack Baggypants (Malcom Morgan) is transporting Zozobra's head on the Rail Runner in an effort to get it to Santa Fe in time for its annual burning. On that same train is the evil Namaste Ne'erdoowell-Smith (Scott Shuker), a campaign manager and spa operator who wants to keep Santa Feans feeling gloomy so they'll come to his massage parlor where he can oil them up. Also on the train is Gov. Thoothanna Dinero (Felix Cordova), Bertjack's sweet aerobics-mad daughter Betty (Shawna Howley), a naive and dedicated schoolteacher (Antony Berzack) and an 80-year-old third-grader (Cliff Russell) who is still learning to read.
That last character is a clever idea, and this year's show has a good amount of inventive gags, including an interlock ignition device in the train's engine (Bertjack likes to drink), a foot chase on top of the train (great set piece, courtesy of designer Patrick Briggs) and endless jokes about education and teachers. "You'll graduate before you die if I have to punish every teacher in New Mexico to do it," the retention-driven governor tells the 80-year-old student. And the business about the bad guy laying out his plans in writing on a whiteboard on the train, well aware that no one onboard can read in a state renowned for its lack of literacy, is amusing as well.
But most of the jokes in the production have less comic punch and thus drew giggles instead of guffaws during Sunday's matinee, and several played to silence. A few jokes, including the one about a tragic drunken-driving accident in Santa Fe and a couple about police brutality are painful, and a pair of onstage hecklers commenting on the poor quality of this melodrama don't help.
Nothing but praise can be given to the cast members, who throw themselves into this theatrical Mulligan's Stew with a fevered pitch. Shuker, sporting a voice that sounds like a cross between Edward G. Robinson and Tennessee Tuxedo, and Berzack, as the game and goofy hero, commit fully to their absurd characters and really set the "good vs. evil" tone from the start. Cordova is a sight gag in himself as the aggressive governor, who claims the only words she needs to know how to read are on protest signs at demonstrations -- so she'll know who to have arrested later on. The actor is clearly having a blast, and his spirit is infectious even when his one-liners are lame. And it's great to see melodrama veteran Cliff Russell in what nearly amounts to a co-starring role as the octogenarian student, clad in a propeller-topped beanie and kiddy pajamas and striving to pronounce "New Mexico."
Robin Holloway played the piano, providing the "melo" to go with the drama, but it would have been neat to have more songs with better lyrics. The best song of the night was a rendition of Joe West's "New Mexico," which suggests that the state's beauty can overcome the blues. This year's melodrama doesn't quite have that power. But at a time when very little in this state seems funny, it may provide 90 minutes of chuckles.
The Santa Fe Fiesta Melodrama plays through Sept. 7 at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E. De Vargas St. Call 988-4262 for reservations and information.
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