BWW Review: An Elderly Patron and I Disagree About BEN-HUR: AN EPIC COMEDY! at Garden Theatre
Despite a lifetime of church, faith, and Jesus movies, I'd somehow never seen 1959's BEN-HUR... until this week.
I sat down to watch the movie with what I assumed was ample time, knowing it was long but maybe not four hours long. Alas, I had to hit pause right before the chariot race; BEN-HUR: AN EPIC COMEDY! was about to begin at the Garden Theatre in downtown Winter Garden, FL, and I didn't want to be late. So that's how I became maybe the world's first person to watch a parody of Ben-Hur on stage as an intermission to their very first viewing of the film.
In a conceit similar to The Play That Goes Wrong, patrons file into the Garden Theatre and pick up a program for a new version of BEN-HUR written, produced, directed, designed, costumed, choreographed, and horse-wrangled by "Daniel Veil" (and sponsored by the local Chariots R Us).
Daniel steps out from behind the curtain to welcome everyone, but his spotlight's on the other end of the stage, so he addresses us from the dark end of the proscenium. He warns that a few last-minute details are still being worked out backstage - and those darn chariots still haven't arrived - then offers to introduce the actors in the meantime.
There are only four of them, including Daniel. He plays Judah Ben Hur "and an illustrious string of other major characters," while Crystal Singer plays all (er- most) of the female characters... and some of the male ones too.
Daniel tells us that he and Crystal are in love. Crystal's expression tells us otherwise. Meanwhile, Daniel's friend Omar Lord plays the menacing Messala, and Edgar T. Chesterfield plays "everyone else."
Daniel & Co. are characters, of course. This is a play within a play, and in a twist, neither of those plays are very good (by design).
In most shows of this type, inept actors make a mess of a very fine drama... or very fine actors make fun of a very fine film. In BEN-HUR: AN EPIC COMEDY!, good actors are playing bad actors in a bad adaptation of a great movie - but the adapter ("Daniel Vale") doesn't seem to agree that it's a very good film. So we have a sendup on so many levels.
Sometimes we're laughing at Ben-Hur, sometimes we're laughing at Vale's bad writing, sometimes we're laughing at his overacting, and sometimes we're laughing at the real-life actor's meta reactions to any/all of the above.
"That's the worst thing I've ever seen," said an elderly woman on her way out the door. "I couldn't have said it better myself!" her friend agreed. Far be it for me to differ - they probably saw Ben-Hur in theatres while I still didn't know who was going to win the chariot race - but I loved it.
BEN-HUR: AN EPIC COMEDY! is genuinely funny and multifaceted, drawing as much from General Lew Wallace's 1880 play as William Wyler's 1959 film. It's irreverently thoughtful in its observations about both, paying special attention to the curious relations between some of the story's characters, including the widely noted "gay vibe" between Ben Hur and Messala in the movie.
Fundamentally, though, the sendup is smitten with its source. That matters when the target is subtitled A Tale of the Christ. Real-life parodist/playwright Patrick Barlow walks a fine line... though I'm not sure that the second-act sermon from the Son of Man is quite how Jesus would put things.
As Daniel/Ben Hur, TJ Washburn's tonal command of deadpan comedy is startlingly good. I opened the program and found that he trained at Upright Citizens Brigade and thought, "Ah, that makes sense." His improvisational skills kick in whenever the show breaks the fourth wall, with Washburn wryly interacting with the audience and adding some local color in his asides about Windermere.
The script includes more patron participation than I'd like (one drawn-out sequence relies entirely on audience interaction), but Washburn's quick wit and cool temperament make even those moments easy to enjoy.
The loudest laughs probably come from Adam Graham as Edgar and in countless other roles, none more memorable than mother Miriam or novelist General Wallace (who returns to narrate his story from beyond the grave in exaggeratedly antebellum fashion). He's a delight.
Real-life husband and wife Mason Criswell (Omar/Messala/etc.) and Kristin Shirilla (Crystal) have the natural chemistry you'd anticipate, even when their characters' romantic affections are aimed elsewhere. More importantly, they steer their characters into the tonal sweet spot of satire and dead pan, making it all look so easy when it certainly is not.
This BEN-HUR is a blast, whether you grew up watching the movie or have only watched it up until the start of its most famous scene (like me).
Actually, an update: I went home to finish the movie and found that AN EPIC COMEDY! hadn't spoiled the epic drama too terribly after all. So you might head down to the Garden this week, even if you're a total Ben-Hurgin. The show runs through Sunday, March 15, 2020. Get tickets now; your chariot awaits.
What did you think of BEN-HUR: AN EPIC COMEDY! at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos by Steven Miller Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre