Placing Carlo Gozzi’s 18th century commedia dell’arte classic in a contemporary theme park may seems like a promising idea. After all, Gozzi’s goofy sensibility is not that far removed from a Goofy of another kind. But Yale Repertory’s world-preem adaptation of “The King Stag” is in desperate need of a first-class Imagineer. Lacking the bold whimsy that marks the original — and Andrei Serban and Julie Taymor’s mid-’80s take — this version is a just a big, wasteful mess. “Stag’s” a drag.
Gozzi’s magical surrealism setting is reconceived by adapters Evan Yionoulis, Mike Yionoulis and Catherine Sheehy as the Enchanting Empire, a theme park based on the character of Dippi Cow and the heart of a multibillion dollar entertainment conglomerate, Serendippo Worldwide Inc. Expectations of social satire or playful wickedness are not met; in their place is a tedious stream of cow jokes and bovine imagery. The show is not for the lactose intolerant.
The show gets off to a flying stop when Matthew Cowles, as an eccentric street person, moves from the theater’s lobby (there’s a pre-show interaction) to take center stage for an endless, unfunny setup to the new story. Gozzi’s original involves Deramo, a young king in search of a bride, and Tartaglia, the evil prime minister with a marriageable daughter. When his plans fails, Tartaglia dabbles in some black magic and takes over the body of the king. The king’s soul is stuck in the body of a stag until some countermagic rights the wrongs.
In this version, the king is a major stockholder, the minister is CEO and the rest of the court consists of midlevel corporate execs. But the modern adaptation lacks any punch or purpose. Perhaps the dangerous minds of “The Simpsons” or “South Park” could have made this updated premise fly, but this production is hampered by a feeble script, clumsy staging and dull clowning. Music by Mike Yionoulis enlivens things, but its placement is awkward and its hip-hop humor tame or lame. (However, B.J. Crosby has a nice turn singing and gets to wear one of Camille Assaf’s better costumes, not involving udders or antlers.)
The script substitutes namedropping for comedy, as if the mere mention of John Edwards, Lou Dobbs, Frank Gehry, “Gigli” or an Enron Survivors support group would elicit laughter. You know you’re in trouble when there’s a “send in the clowns” line.
Casting true theater clowns might have brought at least some relief. Instead, the ensemble here is hapless and ill at ease. Mark Zeisler, so good in the Rep’s “The Black Dahlia,” hasn’t a comic clue here as Tartaglia. Opal Alladin, as Deramo’s love, is bland. Lisa Jolley and Jeannine Serrales have some good moments, however.
Though Sergio Villegas’ set makes the Enchanting Empire more cheesy than the dairy theme requires, there seems to be no expense spared in the production. An elaborate hydraulic lift climbs from center stage to act as a spinning thrill ride — to little effect. A map of the fictitious park is supplied in the program. It’s hard to understand the attraction of a bovine theme park, though. The same could be said of the show.