Any show that can win laughs from an actor with bamboo-and-rags puppets encouraging a grinning audience to sing “Leprosy isn’t funny, leprosy isn’t funny at all” is clearly doing something right. That’s one of the highs from “Oedipussy,” the latest lunacy from anarcho-comic outfit Spymonkey. Troublingly, scenes as good as that are counterbalanced by self-indulgence that leeches energy from the proceedings. Helmer Emma Rice shoulders responsibility for a boisterous but fitful, two-hour show show that yearns to be a swifter, sharper 90 minutes.
The title alone sets the tone. This is Sophocles’s Oedipus tragedy put through the stylistic wringer, not least a marvelously high-serious, James Bond-esque title song.
Sporting a giant Greek column on his head and wearing nothing but a Greek-style nappy and sandals, a superbly droll Toby Park is the master-of-ceremonies/narrator attempting, usually in vain, to maintain order. He joins with the other three performers who make up Spymonkey to switch in and out of a host of characters and situations in a consciously daft retelling of the myth of the man who murdered his father and married his mother.
The high-stakes story of nearly unbelievable coincidence is wide-open for comic treatment, a notion seized upon by Carl Grose’s script, which finds plenty of space for Spymonkey’s trademark brand of silliness and slapstick. At its best, everything bounces between over-the-top choreography, double-takes and outlandish physical comedy.
Some of the smartest work, however, comes in Lucy Bradridge’s supremely witty costumes. Nicely clownish Aitor Basauri simply pulls his curly wig through 180 degrees to switch between two characters, including the all-important shepherd whose dodgy coat of fur-skin is edged with outsize woolly balls standing in for sheep.
Pacing, however, is problematic. As adaptor and director, Rice allows tension and mood to droop between set-pieces. Elsewhere, she allows her skilled performers to hit overkill. There’s too much uncontrolled shouting, scenes are stretched too far and whenever a section finishes it’s as if the comedy drains away from the sides of Michael Vale’s functional but unatmospheric white set. The decision to intercut a supposedly comic parallel backstory of personal dissatisfaction within the company is also a misfire that slows everything still further.
Yet although the show only occasionally achieves a rolling boil of laughter, it pulls off a major surprise at the close. The final moments of the tragedy are played for real. Stephan Kreiss’s previously idiotic Oedpius races around in a frenzy and suddenly, as red ribbons cascade down the back of the set from his pierced eyes, his elemental suffering is made startlingly plain. With more directorial rigor and comic precision up to this point, the show could be more of a winner.