Laughter, Landmines, and an Historical Sitcom Fit for the Stage

Presented by Theatre on Fire
By Richard Curtis and Ben Elton
Directed by Darren Evans

April 26 – May 11, 2014
Charlestown Working Theater
Charlestown, MA
Theatre on Fire Facebook Page

Review by Gillian Daniels

Back in 1989, Blackadder Goes Forth aired on the BBC as a spectacular, grim comedy that lampooned World War I. The creators, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, also worked on previous installments in the series, including the Elizabethan Blackadder II and the Regency-centric Blackadder the Third. Each new storyline used the same actors, particularly Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, and Hugh Laurie, and pitted them against historical figures (Queen Elizabeth! Prince George!) and fart jokes. With director Darren Evans at the helm, Theatre on Fire works tirelessly to bring television to stage. For the most part, the humor translates beautifully.

Each of the six episodes from the show is condensed into the two-part play. Captain Edmund Blackadder (Craig Houk) makes one ludicrous plan after another to leave the trenches and head back to Britain. He tends to be thwarted by the ineptitude of his officers, Private Baldrick (Chris Wagner, an excellent stand-in for Tony Robinson) and Lieutenant George (Christopher Sherwood Davis, who plays the upper crust twit as naively loveable), but Blackadder is most at a disadvantage when it comes to his own ego. Probably more dangerous still to Blackadder’s wellbeing is General Melchett (Michael Steven Costello), a man particularly fired up about the English beating the Germans provided, of course, that he remain as far away from the frontline as possible.

Most of the jokes that did well in the show land with relative ease. Particularly funny is the trumped up machismo of Jason Beals’ aerial ace, Flashheart, and Captain Darling (John Geoffrion) as the increasingly fed-up paper-pusher serving Melchett’s every whim.

Davis makes an endearing Lieutenant George who’s fired up about the war but flummoxed over why he’s fighting it in the first place. This underscores the more serious heart of Blackadder Goes Forth, specifically its anxiety in the second half over World War I’s ill-defined goals. Though the original television show makes light of landmines and rat-infested trenches, there’s a reason it’s often shown to students and aired on V Day. According to film critic Michael Brooke, the idea of staging World War I as a comedy is perhaps viciously apt, claiming, “the first hundred pages of any book about the world war are hilarious; then of course everybody dies.” While written for the small screen, it’s a delightful flavor to bring to the stage of Charlestown Working Theater.

Eric Jacobsen’s lighting and Eric Propp’s costuming serve the play well, but the problem with bringing a cult classic TV show to the stage is that someone has already done the same story with a larger budget. I wondered if the set was quite as filthy and claustrophobic as a trench could be. Still, there are other errors that could have been fixed with more ease, mainly sliding accents and slipping wigs. Little can eclipse the comedy of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, though, and Theatre on Fire works itself ragged to strip down celluloid to the more organic experience of live theater.

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