Sketches triumph in Oak Park Festival Theatre's production of 'Beyond the Fringe'

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By Doug Deuchler


Beyond the Fringe, Oak Park Festival Theatre's latest production, is a British comedy revue, originally created at the turn of the '60s by a four-member male troupe composed of Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. None of the four creators had ever worked together before. In fact, Jonathan Miller was actually trained as a physician.

This landmark, influential show originated at the dawn of what would soon become a huge boom in satire. Although lots of water has gone over the comedy damn during the past half century, this highly enjoyable satiric sketch comedy classic still sparkles with sharp wit and hilarity. Director David Minks and his four-member ensemble present a delightful evening of tightly performed skits that are fast-paced, irreverent, and well-executed.

This 1960 show, looking at events of the day, broke the previously strictly adhered to convention of not lampooning the government or the Royal Family. The material became so popular it seemed to transform the British idea of what was funny. When this revue played on Broadway in 1962, President John F. Kennedy was an enthusiastic fan. Beyond the Fringe paved the way for Monty Python's Flying Circus and such American comedy programs as Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live.

None of the sketches seem to have lost their topicality, although I suspect a few dated references and perhaps even some entire sketches may have been pruned. I've read of one skit featuring humor about homosexual actors which seems to have been dropped in this production.

In the original run, Dudley Moore, an accomplished musician who composed five film scores, played piano solos between some of the episodes. In Festival Theatre's production, Kyle Irwin's sound design features transitional bits of vintage '60s music.

Most of the comic bull's-eyes are targets we understand and there is nothing vague or obscurely British in the subject matter. None of the jokes require footnoting to enjoy them.

Sixteen sketches are arranged into two swift acts with one 15-minute intermission.

The opening episode features Jack Hickey and Mark Richard as two total strangers who persist in trying to make small talk with one another. We see how pointless and inane casual conversation can be.

Maggie Graham is a theatrical producer auditioning a one-legged actor (Chris Ballou) for the role of Tarzan. She tells the "uni-dexter" who is hopping around: "Lovely leg. Lovely, lovely leg. I've got nothing against your right leg, Mr. Spiggott. The trouble is, neither have you."

Mark Richard is especially funny as a dim-witted coal miner, sitting in the darkness with only his helmet light providing a bit of illumination. In monotone he bemoans his inability to become a judge rather than a miner. To become a coal miner he had to take an exam, he says. "There is only one question: 'What is your name?' I got 75% on that."

"Take A Pew" features Jack Hickey as a clergyman who delivers a vacuous, meandering sermon showcasing several Bible passages that seem "out there" and irrelevant, such as Genesis 27, verse 11: "But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man." The preacher insists, "These words represent a challenge to today."

Dressed in abbreviated Biblical attire, Chris Ballou is a reporter for the "Bethlehem Star," working on "an in-depth profile of Jesus." He interviews one of the original shepherds (Mark Richard) who is continually distracted by his rams mounting one another. (He refers to this situation as "ram-ifications." And yes, that did get a groan.) The shepherd was not impressed by the Three Magi, which he pronounces "Maggie": "I ask you, what is a little kid supposed to do with frankincense and myrrh?"

In a final episode, featuring the full ensemble in an assortment of wild Elizabethan-style head gear, Shakespearean tragedy turns into travesty. Skewering (so to speak) Shakespeare companies, Jack Hickey is uproariously fun when he's "run through" by Ballou during their slow motion sword fight and staggers about, unable to accept what's happened.

Robert W. Behr is the stage manager. Andrew Hildner designed the set, which features a series of brightly colored rectangles hanging on the rear wall and stage left. It reminded me of the art work of Mondrian. There's even a palm tree during the Holy Land episode.

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