ATF Dazzles with World Premiere of “The Enlightenment of Percival von Schmootz”
The stage has bright carnival colors of yellow, orange and red with arches left and right going up at angles and pennants festooned out to the audience. It looks like a children’s pop-up picture book and yet just off-center stage there is a huge splat painted on the stage floor. What is this? The indefatigable Kyle Sherman as Percival launches into “The Ages Sure Seem Bright To Me” which introduces us to the Dark Ages and his town of Manureville where the villagers wake and empty their bed pans in the streets, the plague is bubonic and leaving the house his mother (the terrific Tess Primack) says “Don’t forget your shovel…and your handkerchief and the one and only toothbrush in Manureville!” There are a dozen poop jokes in the first number. This is the feel-good s**t of the summer!
The opening number surprises and delights with its transgressive matter-of-factness and off-hand treatment of disease, death and bodily functions. You thought it was tough to celebrate the Fourth of July this summer? What if you were surrounded by excrement and your co-workers formed a daisy chain of coughing in each other’s faces? What if your father propped in his chair with his newspaper in front of him was not just withholding and uncommunicative but had actually died 13 years hence of the Orange Death? Percy swears to his mother on her deathbed (minutes after we meet her) that he will personally put an end to the Dark Ages!
Percival who starts out as 25 feels like his clock is ticking as the average life expectancy is 30. The stakes and goal are set and he sets out encountering travelling actors, wandering knights, an abbey and the royal family on his mission. “The Enlightenment of Percival von Schmootz” feels like a play for our time. The newspaper and its motto is “The Ages: Somehow Darker Than Yesterday” and isn’t that what every morning has felt like around here for a long time? Percival as our Candide pursues his quest and the parallels between America today and the Dark Ages are plentiful and unnerving. This is a laugh-out-loud absurdist farce of a musical with beheadings played for laughs and yet Percival confronts sexism, rape culture, homophobia, transphobia, religious orthodoxy and ignorance presented as a bias against science.
Kyle Sherman is a terrific hero who you never stop rooting for. He’s onstage throughout and with his clarion singing voice, open manner, elastic physicality and facial expressions you never want him to. As the number two rains down, he’s your number one. The cast of seven is uniformly excellent. Capital Region native Cathryn Wake makes a fantastic return to Adirondack Theatre Festival. It’s always a delight to see her light up a stage. I’m used to seeing her as the beautiful ingenue she is and she is having a blast indulging her most silly and outrageous impulses. The whole cast goaded by their daffy director Scott Weinstein channel their inner Python and let their freak flags fly committing fully to the physical comedy, funny voices, low humor and dark laughs of the evening. Every single one of them made me laugh numerous times. Erik Gratton towers as the tallest Mother Superior I’ve ever seen and embraces his/her martyrdom blissfully. Zach Kononov is defensively rough and tumble as the Knight of Three Balls (“He juggles!”) who counsels Percival to have his way, that he is sure that “…someday, far in the future, men of privilege will not be able to simply take what we want without fear of consequence, but until that dystopian nightmare becomes a reality, we must.” The audience rippled with recognition that the Dark Ages live. John Anthime Miller, a Glens Falls native, as the scientist Copernileo had the audience laughing in anticipation as a scientist is introduced to this s**t show and he did not disappoint. Sydney Parra delighted as the love interest Hildegard and she and Sherman made the emotional heart of the show beat and throb.
The music by Michael Kooman and book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond were consistently tuneful and rousing. They have a great, light touch that easily gets laughs with the darkest of materials and somehow miraculously never crossed a line. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish and eagerly looked forward to each next stop in Percival’s progression. The band under Matt Deitchman’s direction sounded great. I loved the set and the many rolling wagons that came on and off as stages, gardens and beds. The lighting design by Jeffrey Small was exceptional from a joke in Chad Rabinovitz’s curtain speech to the startling special effect that closes the play and the 20 stops along the way, he brings the light that will illuminate these dark ages. First rate work by costumer Johana Pan and sound designer Brandon Reed as well.
In our summer of dread, “Percival von Schmootz” felt like a brilliant light of laughter, music, and heart and I was grateful for its crusade of entertainment. Shine on von Schmootz!