Posted by: strugglesome | June 14, 2011

An Actor Prepares: Aggrocrag Presents The Most Inspiring and Magnificent Tale of Alfrige Von Waddlegrave, The Greatest Actor Who Ever Trod The Boards of Earth

It’s a simple fact that it can be hard to be friends with an actor. When you spend the majority of your professional life getting paid to be stared at, you tend to want the same kind of treatment in your personal time as well, and you tend to view everyone in your life as, well, audience members. You get to stand in a pool of light and have everyone watch you for two to three hours a night, how do you give that up? Isn’t everything else down hill from there? And I wonder if strippers have the same problem? These deep quandaries aside, maintaining a friendship with someone who treads the boards can be a bit of a struggle. And nothing epitomizes this more than seeing a play like The Most Inspiring and Magnificent Tale of Alfridge Von Waddlegrave, The Greatest Actor Who Ever Trod the Boards of Earth, Aggrocrag’s latest offering to the Philadelphia theater scene which plays with the concept of theater and the personalities of actors like a dog with a rubber ball, bouncing every concept against the cement walls of Underground Arts at the Wolf Building and seeing where they land. And while it can sometimes feel like you are trapped in a theatrically themed fun house, this slightly messy ruthlessly endearing piece of theater ultimately celebrates the dramatic form, the mentally unbalanced people who make it their lives, and the value of friendship. Because while stars may come and go, you need more than one ham to keep the butcher shop up and running.

Despite its ludicrously long title, this piece zips along time-wise, clocking in around an hour and a half. Plot wise it’s a little more convoluted. We start outside the theater in a “town square” (suspension of disbelief starts early with Aggrocrag) where actor extraordinaire Alfridge Von Waddlegrave (Alex Fast) entertains the crowd with speeches from Hamlet with the aid of his trusty man-servant/adopted father Bartholomew (Max Reuben). But as popular as Waddlegrave’s performance is, he isn’t the most famous actor in the world, that honor belongs to another thespian with an equally unpronounceable name who we don’t really have to worry about, because he never actually appears. He just serves as a motivator for Waddlegrave to take a journey, assemble an ensemble and act his heart out while being taunted and tantalized by the mysteriously prophetic Blind Peggy (Keilly McQuail), a cackling southern crazy lady in Mrs. Havisham whites and clown make up. What, you don’t have one of those? Pity. They really motivate the development of your craft.

And so Waddlegrave travels around the ever-changing backdrop (clever set design by Alyssa Yackley), collecting German expressionist props master Utz (Andrew Farmer), cowboy vigilante costume designer Broncho Wakely (Evan Watkins) and backdrop turned leading lady Ensemble (Kim Blanck) along the way. The cast of characters is decked out courtesy of costume designer Laura Lashley, who seems to have dressed the cast as if heading for the Renaissance Fair, a move that pairs perfectly with the rag-bag nature of the work, which itself seems plucked from various greek myths, Shakespearian tropes and folklore favorites. With solid lighting design by Chris Bowser the small troupe shuffles around the cavernous world of the World Building, celebrating drama in all its incarnations. But will fame tear them apart? Or can they continue to make sub-par work together? I wont give away any pivotal plot points, but I can tell you that this piece echos the structure and form of a fairy tale, and when was the last time you saw one of those end badly? So in the end the lessons get learned and the show must go on. And on. And on. Because just like the journey of Waddlegrave himself, this piece feels like it is meandering around in a bit of a dark forest, cracking the wise over every theatrical cliché under the sun and leading it’s audience on a bit of a wild goose chase.

For one thing, it is very clear that this work was created by committee; it has that “everything but the kitchen sink” effect that can haunt ensemble created pieces when they haven’t had much stage time in front of an audience. Moreover, this piece is in danger of falling into another trap common with pieces created collaboratively by young artists, that is, it’s stepping very close to the line of only being entertaining to the people who made it, not the people who are watching it. It’s all too easy for artists to fall so in love with their own work that they forget this medium is set up for sharing, not hording, and this becomes especially clear when creating a piece about theater, because the more self referential you are the more possibilities you create for the audience to get lost. And referencing plays from Chekhov to Mamet only drives home the fact that you were once a drama student and most of the audience was not.

But luckily generous performances by Fast, Reuben and the ever-clever Farmer work to mitigate these effects. Watkin’s Broncho is a good sport, but his roaring personality is overtaken by Farmer’s darkly comic Creepy Susie style one liners, and really, there is no beating lines like “Everyone hates my avant guard toys”.  And while Fast’s outrageous artiste persona can start to grate, he has appropriate female foils in the hilarious McQuail and the endearing Blanck. However it’s more than clear that the true romance here is between Fast and Reuben, and frankly, Bartholomew, you deserve so much more, because Reuben’s sweetly silent roly-poly batman is like a butler mixed with a puppy, and I wonder where I can order one of those? I mean, it’s not every servant you can order “In the event that [you] are masticated by some foul beast, preserve [your] face and wear it as your own” and trust that they will in fact do so.  Good help is so hard to find.

Flaws aside,Aggrocrag’s The Most Inspiring and Magnificent Tale of Alfridge Von Waddlegrave, The Greatest Actor Who Ever Trod the Boards of Earth is more fun then it has any right to be, and it will be running until June 24th. Pick up tickets here.

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