Erasmus Montanus

When informed that you are about to watch a 200-year-old comedy written by some Danish guy you’ve never heard of, you might suspect that you’re in for three hours of obscure jokes that didn’t translate well, and which were probably only funny 200 years ago, and that the term “comedy” will have been used very loosely.

At least this was my feeling as I entered BYU’s Margetts Theatre to watch “Erasmus Montanus.” I’d seen centuries-old “comedies” by well-known playwrights like Shakespeare that weren’t very funny, and I’d also seen “comedies” by obscure people like Thomas Dekker (“Shoemaker’s Holiday”) that also weren’t funny. But at least those were written in English! Something that had to be translated — ooooh, it didn’t bode well.

So you can imagine my sheer delight and child-like wonderment when “Erasmus Montanus” opened with the cast lip-synching “Da Da Da” (that catchy ’80s song in the Volkswagen commercial) while several people manipulated marionettes of farm animals and explanatory supertitles were projected on the back wall of the set. I could see immediately that the play was going to be nowhere near what author Ludvig Holberg or translator Gerald Argetsinger had in mind, and that this variation was a GOOD thing.

Director Eric Samuelson notes in the program that he and the cast “messed with the script bigtime.” They cut out two characters, changed the genders of three others, introduced a plot twist that changes the entire last act of the play, and changed many, many lines. All in the interest of making it funnier.

And make it funny they did.

“Erasmus Montanus,” as produced by the BYU Theatre Department, is hysterically, frantically, absurdly funny. It takes place in a backwoods town called Skunk Hollow, where the folks are simple and ignorant. Rasmus Berg (Ary Farahnakian) goes off to college and comes back educated — a little TOO educated, in fact. He now demands to be called Erasmus Montanus, speaks Latin all the time (translations are provided in the aforementioned supertitles), and just generally acts like a pompous jerk. Worse, he starts spreading the crazy notion that the earth is round! The townsfolk won’t stand for it, especially Mama Jeronimus (played with outrageous flair by Elary Allen), the town hairdresser and chief gossip. She usually makes her points not by quoting Bible verses, but by citing the reference and expecting everyone to know what it says. And now she won’t let her daughter Lisbed (Susan Kimberly Davis) marry Erasmus — not until he recants on this whole “earth is round” business.

What follows — well, what follows is irrelevant. Of course Erasmus and Lisbed wind up together in the end, and everybody’s happy. The destination is not the important thing; the fun is in getting there. The show features several lip-synched musical numbers, usually with Road Show-quality choreography (that’s intentional, I think). It’s mostly country songs that are used, expressing the current sentiments of the characters. The funniest of these numbers is Erasmus’ heart-felt rendition of “All by Myself,” in which he lip-syncs onstage alone, save for the presence of the farm animals — marionettes manipulated with great skill by Clin Eaton, Athena Madan, Emily Ireta Perez and Rachel Rawlins.

(The only complaint I have about the show is that those marionettes are often used downstage, near the front row. They’re low to the ground, too, which means anyone sitting further back than Row 2 often can’t see what they’re doing. This is a shame, because you miss a lot of jokes that way — especially when two of the animals relieve themselves, via water pistol, on Erasmus.)

Erasmus’ parents are played by Deric C. Nance and Genesis Eve Speer. Nance’s character doesn’t have much to do after the first 45 minutes or so, but when he’s onstage, he plays everything to the hilt, putting his entire body and voice into his country bumpkin character.

Playing the town mayor is Jjana Valentiner Morrill, a fiery, energetic actress whose scenes with the gaudily costumed Elary Allen are priceless.

Rounding out the cast are Julie Hawkins as the town schoolteacher, David Softley as Erasmus’ brother Jacob, and Steve Watts as an Army lieutenant who comes in to — well, don’t ask.

Softley’s performance is probably the deepest, which isn’t saying much when most of the acting is broad and silly. But in fact, it takes great skill to make anything seem real and believable when everything surrounding it has been odd and crazy. And Softley does just that as he tries to convince Erasmus that the value of knowledge is in its use. It’s an important character, one that needs to be played realistically, and Softley does a great job.

The show is just under two hours long, has audience participation (Lavell Edwards got dragged onstage for country dancing the night I was there), and seems to have some room for improvisation by the actors, which is always fun. Ludvig Holberg’s message may not get emphasized quite as much as he might have liked, but on the other hand, who wants a message? “Erasmus Montanus” is loony, wacky, outlandish and weird. It’s as if a romance/comedy/farce were made into a Warner Bros. cartoon. It would impossible to list everything about it that makes it funny; it would be easier for you to just go see it.

This show was loony. There's no better word for it -- just loony, chaotic, and loony. Sure, it resembled a Road Show sometimes, and sure, it resembled the Desert Star Playhouse sometimes. But it was generally better than both of those. We enjoyed it quite a bit.

From the "You Can't Please Anybody" file comes the following letter in response to this review. It came addressed to me at the Daily Herald, with no return address, and all the person did was write his or her comments in the margin of the review, which he/she had torn out of the newspaper. The comments were thus:

This is at least 2x [I believe that means "two times"] too long for a review. Cut the personal stuff and get to the point. Was it worth seeing or not? Learn to write concisely PLEASE!

He/She also marked circled certain parts of the review and wrote "unnecessary" and "could be cut drastically."

Obviously this person knows how long a review should be. His/Her review of my review was only four sentences. In the future, my reviews will be no longer than that. Also, taking a cue from this critic, I will no longer attach my name to my opinions in any way.