Randall Theater’s Bullshot Crummond Provides A Full Evening of Entertaining Laughter
– by Lee Greene
The Lord knows, I badly needed a good laugh on Friday evening, Oct. 2, 2015, and I got it, actually a belly full of laughs, at Medford’s Randall Theater, where I attended a performance of the comic stage play, Bullshot Crummond. Bullshot Crummond is a parody of the British pulp hero Bulldog Drummond who was played by Ronald Coleman in a series of 1930’s film comedies. Colman’s Bulldog Drummond “was the unflappable, suave British hero who never wrinkled his evening clothes while saving the day with prodigious intelligence and derring-do.” [Bullshot (1985), Roger Ebert, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/bullshot-1985] The play was written in 1974 by Ronald E. House and Diz White, who starred in stage versions of the show in San Francisco and London, with John Neville-Andrews, Alan Shearman, and Derek Cunningham. Typical of pulp fiction, all of the characters are highly stereotyped. The plot follows the scheme of the arch-evil Hun, Count Otto Von Brunno, and his sidekick, Lenya Von Brunno, to destroy England by kidnapping eccentric, absent-minded scientist, Rupert Fenton, and stealing his new secret formula to manufacture diamonds, which will upset the world’s economies. Fenton’s daughter, Rosemary, a classic damsel in distress, appeals to larger-than-life hero, Hugh “Bullshot” Crummond to come to the rescue and save the day. While highly intelligent and quick-witted, Drummond also hilariously fails to notice the obvious (to everyone else and the audience) and, against stereotype, can’t seem to win a fight. And of course, he is immediately smitten with the damsel. The play is designed to be performed by only five actors, one of whom plays SEVEN characters including Professor Fenton. In one scene, the actor in the role of Otto also plays a gangster with whom he quarrels in the same scene, doing a repeated quick costume change .
The show was eventually made into a film in 1985, Bullshot, by which time the three leading actors (Shearman, House and White) had been working together 15 years, and apparently lost some of their comic edge. The film was mostly criticized by Roger Ebert, who gave it only 1 and ½ stars in the pre-thumbs era. [Id.] Ebert led off his film review by writing:
“To be successful, a satire requires at least two things: (1) an audience familiar with the original material that is being satirized, and (2) a certain savage glee on the part of the performers, who must seem, to some degree, cheerfully hostile to their subject matter. “Bullshot” is a satire that contains a good many wonderful things, but it does not contain those two essential ingredients, and so it fails.” [Id.]
I am happy to say the Randall Theater stage production did not suffer the same fate. To be sure, we 21st century Americans are sadly unfamiliar with the original material of the 1930’s British comedies and the pulp fiction that produced them. I have to disagree with Ebert though – funny is funny, and you don’t need to exactly know the details of the original source material to perceive that you’re seeing satire. More importantly, the Randall Theater cast was wonderfully “savagely gleeful” in performing their roles. They were more than cheerfully, I would say joyously, hostile to their subject matter, in a production where that was entirely desirable. Several weeks ago, I wrote a review [http://performingarts.reviews/2015/09/18/next-stage-repertory-companys-bus-stop/] that was critical of a production of William Inge’s Bus Stop, for performances that took an approach to the piece’s humor that was too over-the-top. For Bullshot Crummond, however, that over-the-top comic approach is vital for the play to succeed. And the Randall Theater cast plainly reveled in sticking it to their characters and roles, with broad humor, slapstick antics, all manner of comic facial expressions and glances, and a kind of continuous knowing wink, wink at the audience.
Perhaps the film did fail, but the play is hilarious. “The play is structured more as an excuse for comic gags than as an actually coherent plot.” [Wikipedia, Bullshot Crummond, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshot_Crummond]
“Much of the play’s humor comes from its audacious (and intentionally failed) efforts to recreate film effects onstage. Examples include:
- At the beginning of the show, the Von Brunnos are piloting an airplane to England, then parachute out. This is represented by a model of a German aircraft dangling in front of the theatre curtain, then two dolls being tossed onto the stage from behind the curtain. The lights black out, and when they come back on, the actors playing Otto and Lenya are onstage, covered by parachutes.
- There is an onstage “car chase” between the heroes and villains. Lenya and Otto stand behind a large cut-out of a car and “see” Crummond following them on the road. Then, a quick change takes place, leaving Rosemary and Crummond standing behind exactly the same cutout. This effect repeats itself until Crummond’s car plunges over a cliff.
* * * *
- At one point, Otto “mimics” the Professor’s voice to trick Crummond. In reality, the actor playing the Professor speaks with his mouth hidden from view, and the Otto actor lip-synchs.” [Id.]
The Randall Theater production reproduced these hysterical “failed” film effects wonderfully. Projected video was well used and integrated into the production. So as the play begins, we see an old style film clip using a very obvious model plane flying, then in distress, and as the film comes to an abrupt end, two parachutes drop from the plane. In the next second, two miniature parachutes with figures suspended from them drop from the rafters onto the stage. Then the lights flicker and when they come back on we’ve got Otto (John Richardson) and Lenya (V. Simone Stewart) emerging in aerialist’s garb from behind a two-dimensional painted bush on stage. Right at the beginning they’ve got the audience chuckling. Richardson and Stewart, who are terrific and delightfully funny in their roles, immediately bring to mind Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha with their performances in that opening sequence. Stewart works her will on Otto, and Crummond too, throughout the show, with an amusing performance in which she sashays, coos, connives and uses all her feminine wiles to manipulate the men. Richardson is fantastic. What a winning performance! He really does a superb job of pulling off that “quarrel with himself” quick-change scene.
Bullshot is played by Tyler Ward, who has a long string of stage credits, but most pertinent to this role, did a brilliantly funny star turn in the leading role of Camelot Theatre’s production of the satirical comedy, Ug, The Caveman. Ward was perfect as Bullshot, providing the clean cut good looks and aristocratic demeanor the character must project, while at the same time carrying off all manner of physical humor, tactless and implausible behavior, and occasional complete idiocy. Wait till you see the scene where he is immobilized, paralyzed with a volatile stick of dynamite in his mouth. It takes some doing to project the humor in that situation, but Ward is masterful in making it work.
Rosemary was rendered by the lovely, talented, and funny Brianna Gowland. She certainly provided the requisite beauty and air of innocence necessitated by the damsel role, but nicely mixed in touches of humor;. Wait till you hear her side-splitting horse laugh when it’s called for in the script, and watch her pretend to be a tree to avoid the attention of a deadly poisonous spider. It’s almost unfair to the rest of the cast that someone so beautiful can also be so funny.
Richardson, Stewart, Ward and Gowland, aided by the Randall Theater crew, really made great work of the aforementioned ersatz film style car chase. The crew produced the amusing single car cut-out and effectively worked the stage and house lights to allow the actors to switch turns in the car during the chase. Here is some photographic documentation to illustrate that:
And last, but not least, the funniest performance, actually multiple funny performances, were provided by Jacob Uhlman. He did a fine job of selling the eccentric scientist, Professor Fenton, but that was really the least of his many amusing roles. My favorite was his turn as the waiter at the Carlton Restaurant, where he not only got to do some funny shtick, but also had some of the best lines in the show. To Crummond, in disguise: “May I hang your disguise in the cloakroom sir?” In another funny bit, he is playing Crummond’s best friend, Algy, who is pretending to be a woman, so Crummond can rehearse his initial approach to Rosemary. And of course, it’s Uhlman who gets to be the ventriloquist when Otto supposedly is mimicking the Professor’s voice on the phone with the Professor’s daughter. He also plays, splendidly, a Chinese assassin, a local police officer, a Scotland Yard inspector, and a Cockney crook.
As one might well expect in a good guy versus bad guy send up, there is even a notable, extended sword fight between Otto and Crummond, which though well executed by both parties, ultimately demonstrates that Crummond lacks the necessary finesse to really prevail – it’s another scene where it takes some doing to duel with a sword, but also sell the humor in Crummond’s deficiency, which Ward pulls off very successfully.
If you keep in mind that this play is high satire, and not Tony Award caliber drama, and are looking to spend an evening laughing till it hurts, then you’re in for a fun evening at Randall Theater’s Bullshot Crummond. Performances of Bullshot Crummond continue at Randall Theater, 10 3rd St., Medford, October 8, 9 & 10 at 7:00 pm, and Sunday matinees October 4 & 11 at 1:00 pm. For tickets, call the box office at 541-632-3258 or online at http://bit.ly/1sYrd6R.