The Brats of Clarence
The Bedlam Faction's latest is a wildly entertaining marriage of Shakespearean history and wacky, absurd humor
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., March 28, 2008
The Brats of Clarence
Salvage Vanguard Theater, through April 5
Running time: 2 hr, 5 min
Near the end of the Wars of the Roses, the loutish Henry VII still worries about claims to his bloodily won throne. With Richard of York fresh in his grave, the new ruler has three would-be kings floating about his kingdom: Edward, actually a girl, locked in the Tower of London; Ned, who's spent his entire life as a daydreaming shepherd in Wales; and Perkin Warbeck, a snootily oblivious French teenager. Are these legitimate challengers to Henry's sceptre? Far, absurdly far, from it. These are the Brats of Clarence.
For their first full production after an extended hiatus, the members of the Bedlam Faction have chosen a script right up their artistic alley. The Brats of Clarence plays toward the group's ensemble approach and Shakespearean roots while incorporating a very modern, gag-laden humor. The play takes place during Henry VII's reign, right after a great deal of royal jockeying for power, and features quite a few of the Bard's regular dramatic devices: girls disguised as boys, an upstart marching against the crown, a play within a play, ridiculously tied love knots at the end. From the kindly shepherds all the way to the tyrant king, these are characters with whom any Shakespearean buff would be familiar.
And no wonder, considering playwright Paul Menzer is a scholar of Shakespeare. But despite a construction similar to your average Shakespearean history, Brats never pretends to be a serious historical representation. This is a farce, a comical romp that uses one of the Bard's history plays as a vehicle. All the language makes sense to our 21st century ears, so even if you've never been a fervent follower of iambic pentameter, don't worry – in this show, characters who speak in blank verse are speedily sentenced to death.
And while Brats' setting may be the 15th century, its comic styling is much more contemporary. The fourth wall is broken on several occasions, once to allow for a play-within-a-play segment that goofs on Return of the Jedi (Jabba, golden bikini, and all). It's gags like that which make Brats so darn entertaining; for all its wit and clever turns of phrase, the humor often plays to our baser pleasures. Scotsmen get frightened by some heinous farts in the middle of a haunted bog. There's a Scooby Doo chase scene set to "Last Train to Clarksville." The dungeon master sports a black vest on a bare chest, the cast of characters sports more than its fair share of ridiculous accents, and the king is delivered a parcel by a FedEx guy. In this regard, Brats may be a dumb comedy, but it's dumb done intelligently, in the way of Mel Brooks or Monty Python.
Bedlam adds to these anachronistic flourishes with their own video intro and some hard-rock riffs. Otherwise the sizeable Salvage Vanguard Theater is left quite open and bare, which is a reflection of both Brats' ever-changing settings and Bedlam's focus on its ensemble's actions rather than their surroundings. Most cast members take on several roles, and it seems every role, however minuscule, is granted importance and the opportunity for characterization. There is something sweetly beautiful about this in the "there are no small parts" vein, although it does lend itself to distraction when anonymous characters moon and mug about the stage. Perhaps Bedlam's ensemble works so well together because the company makes sure that each member feels fulfilled artistically regardless of the production.
With its rapping princes and robot dances, its kilts and kings, The Brats of Clarence is an entertaining marriage of Elizabethan drama and wacky, absurd humor. It's self-aware without being self-indulgent, and, most of all, it's fun. There's not much at stake here, but the evident joy of the cast shines through throughout this historical romp. So welcome back, Bedlam Faction: It's good to have y'all back.