Commons Theatre

I can just see Paul H. Thompson writing Comedy of Horrors. There he is at his typewriter–a copy of Shakespeare’s collected plays to his right, a stack of old copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines on his left. Behind him on the TV–it’s late on a Saturday night–flicker the black-and-white images of a very old, very bad monster movie, or maybe one of those early 50s Abbott and Costello Meet Whoever horror parodies.

Somewhere in Thompson’s brain an idea is percolating–an idea for a play dramatizing, in strong but funny fashion, the situation of a Chicago off-Loop nonunion actor. In Comedy of Horrors, that idea surfaces from time to time–in abrupt, tart references to Actors’ Equity, the League of Chicago Theatres, and the “Joker Jefferson Committee.” Certainly the basic premise of Thompson’s play, which is having its world premiere as the opening production of the Commons Theatre’s tenth season, is the worst nightmare of any actor, regardless of union affiliation or geographical location. In fact, it seems lifted from a play called The Actor’s Nightmare, by Christopher Durang, in which an actor finds himself onstage in a sort of twilight zone in which he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, what lines he’s supposed to say, or who the other actors are.

That is the situation that Jack, the hero of Thompson’s play, finds himself in. Strolling calmly onto the stage to deliver one of those “welcome to our theater and please subscribe” speeches that audiences hope won’t go on too long, Jack is suddenly stripped to his underwear and thrust into a performance of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, having been assigned the roles of two twin brothers who are both named Antipholus. But since the two Antipholuses (Antipholi?) are not supposed to be played by the same actor, Jack is a bit nonplussed; what’s worse, his fellow actors appear to be a collection of ghouls, sorcerers, and vampires.

By the one-act play’s end, Thompson has cooked up a monster mash combining The Comedy of Errors with its Rodgers and Hart musical version, The Boys From Syracuse; snatches from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III; and references to sources as ridiculously diverse as A Christmas Carol and A Chorus Line, Arsenic and Old Lace and The Importance of Being Earnest, The Wizard of Oz and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Bride of Frankenstein and the Citibank Visa-card commercials. Thompson links these and other grab-bag items with an array of creepy cliches (floating hands and the like), awful but well-educated puns, and seemingly endless running in and out of and into doors that turn into walls and walls that turn into revolving doors.

It’s all pretty funny in an unashamedly silly way; Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of the late, lamented Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, would be proud that Thompson has carried on his peculiar legacy of combining adolescent horror-movie fandom with college-level comparative-literature course material. The extent to which the average audience will enjoy the play will depend on how much horror-film trivia and Shakespearean verse they remember and how much tolerance they have for nonstop Halloween shenanigans. I think Thompson’s play goes on some 15 minutes too long; it feels like the author padded the script to meet a required running time of 90 minutes or so, when it would be seen to best advantage as a curtain raiser for more substantial and original fare.

But there’s no knocking the production, directed by Michael Nowak and designed by Brian Traynor (set), Jeffrey Pines (lights), Mark Anthony Summers (costumes), and Rick Carter and Judith Easton (the all-important makeup). The cast is strong in fielding Thompson’s eclectic barrage of lifted lines. Bruce Barsanti as the hapless Jack delivers an impressive technical performance as he straddles the demands of Shakespeare and stand-up. I particularly enjoyed the work of Mary Linn Snyder as a hunchback dwarf right out of House of Frankenstein, Scott Jones in a nice parody of Peter Lorre, and Will Casey’s amusing imitations of Boris Karloff and James Stewart. However, if Thompson wants to bring out what seems to have been his more solid idea of exploring the life of an actor, he’d be well-advised to turn off the TV, put away the books and magazines, and write more from reality than from childhood memories.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Renar.