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Health, Science, Environment

Lord of the Rings gets the Smoking Monkey treatment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009 - For more than a decade, the Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre has been bringing original adaptations of lowbrow sitcoms and cult classics to St. Louis audiences. The offshoot of the St. Louis Shakespeare Company has been at it so long that audiences are pretty well set on expectations for every show: you've got sets that could fall over in a stiff breeze, costumes created on a bargain shoppers' budget and, most importantly, clever scripts that allow actors a chance to chew scenery to their hearts' content.

"I have no idea what audiences expected the first couple of years - but I'm certainly grateful that they took a risk," says MSMT director and co-founder Donna Northcott. "Seriously, who would think you could get people to see stage versions of 'Glen or Glenda' or 'The Brain From Planet Arous'?).

"We have a very devoted and growing group of Monkey super-fans. My favorite was two couples who came to 'The Ten Commandments,' having heard that there was a risk of getting a little wet in the front row. They brought their own goggles and shower caps. A true Monkey fan is always prepared!"

And they're also ready to laugh.

In past years, the Monkey skewered targets that were ready-made for ironic-and-then-some laughter: "The Love Boat," "Speed Racer" and the twice-produced "Plan 9 From Outer Space," are but a few examples. This spring, though, the troupe is taking on a different kind of farce, "The One Hour Lord of the Rings Trilogy"; the troupe previously produced "LOTR" as a five-minute "trailer," in front of its hilarious send-up of "Star Wars," a preview that almost stole the show.

Needless to say, cramming more than 10-hours of filmmaking into a one-hour theatrical production is already a task, before you add in the obvious fact that this was one of the most-expensive undertakings in film history. As always, the Monkey's tech crew is up to the challenge, transforming the tiny Regional Arts Commission theater into a war-torn Middle Earth. (Or, more accurately, New Zealand, where the films were shot.) Cardboard castle walls and Nerf-style swords wouldn't be surprising this weekend.

Of course, there's acting involved, too; and Northcott says that she's especially enjoying this group, a mix of Monkey veterans and newcomers, including several collegiate-age actors. Even though the material is whimsical, the talent has to find an understanding with the slapstick nature of the show, as well as the need to blend with a large, quickly-moving cast.

Says Northcott, "MSMT productions are really strong ensembles, everyone feeds off of each other's energy and creativity; rehearsals are never boring. I particularly enjoy when an actor discovers a new bit in rehearsal that breaks up the rest of the cast. There are scenes in this show where actors can't look at each other onstage without breaking up."

This time out, Tyson Blanquart, a six-time Monkey, is playing upward of a half-dozen characters, most appearing on stage for a minute or two, before he's dispatched backstage for a costume change. That frenetic pace, he says, is at the core of working with silly, but physically demanding shows like this.

Blanquart says, "I've always had a blast doing them, and the actors that Donna casts are always fun to work with. But now and again, the show she takes on can be a challenge. Such as 'It's A Wonderful Life' and 'Ten Commandments.' Those shows had some stressful moments, but in the end worked out beautifully.

"I was especially nervous before 'Wonderful Life,' which was my first show, because I was overwhelmed with how the show runs. You're constantly running around, changing costumes and trying to get back on stage in time. And I had 13 different characters for that show! But after that first show, it was like butter."

What advice would he have for newbies? "Actors coming in for the first time need to know that they just have to relax and run with it. I imagine it's a bit like when someone hosts 'Saturday Night Live' for the first time: being pulled in every direction and being out of your element or comfort zone," Blanquart says. "But in the end, no matter how hopeless the situation may look, Donna and her crew always manage to pull it together by opening night to great effect."

Playing tavern keeper Butterbur, the deceitful Shelob the Spider and "assorted orcs, Riders of Rohan and oliphants," Blanquart's ready for this show's sprint to begin.

"I'm feeling really good going into opening weekend," he says. "We have a strong cast, a solid show and most of the technical elements seem to be right on schedule. I'd say that this is probably the smoothest running Monkey show that I've worked on yet. A majority of the cast feels this way, too. But we certainly don't want to let our guard down. It seems that when the odds are stacked against us is when we have our best live shows. But in this case, we have a lot of veteran Monkey players, and the new faces are really taking to the Monkey mentality very well. So we feel pretty good about this show, and I think on opening night, the audience will see that manifested on stage."

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.

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