The setup: Jon Klein wrote "picaresque" antihero-buddy-comedy T Bone N Weasel more than 20 years ago. It became a made-for-TNT film starring Gregory Hines and Christopher Lloyd in 1992 and continues to be a popular show at offbeat regional and community theaters.
Currently, iTheatre Collaborative is presenting the rarely-seen-in-Arizona play that follows two parolees on a journey through a kind of timeless late-20th-century rural South Carolina.
See also: PHX:fringe Week 2: Circusy, Gross-Out Humor in Tight Assets from the Bay Area's AlulA Ensemble 9 Circles at iTheatre Collaborative Showcases a Very Good Actor Well Hung: Stuffed and nonsense
The execution: Most criticism of this script and its prior productions focuses on its reliance on cheap, stupid jokes (generally seen as a downside) and the black character T Bone's response to racism and efforts to get his pal Weasel to see it his way (generally regarded as an underdeveloped plus). Director Michael Traylor (Gruesome Playground Injuries, The Play About the Baby, Bug), who also plays T Bone here, has gone beyond the bounds of realism to push both elements into a weird, self-aware place that's somewhat successful as both art and entertainment.
The performance style is strongly influenced by traditional clowning, and in case that's lost on you, some of the scenes are framed by elements of circus (aerialist acts, pantomime to music, etc.) to make it clearer. Set, costume, and prop elements are also exaggerated, in vaudeville style.
I don't like traditional clowning. That doesn't mean the company doesn't do a good job with it. As far as I could tell, most of the small holiday-weekend-opening-night crowd found the show amusing and enjoyable.
Based on ad libs from the actors, a few patrons left early. One doesn't always find out why, exactly, this happens, but just for fun I'm voting for the tried-and-true "performer put his hand down his pants" explanation. Greg Lutz, as Weasel, puts his hand in there constantly, but his pants are huge and he's just trying to find stuff.
The play is written for one man to portray everybody the title characters encounter, and in this case, iTheatre artistic director and good actor Chris Haines does the honors. It's impossible to say which of the three cast members gets Hardest-Working Man in Show Business props this week -- Lutz and Traylor have relentless stage time and line loads, while Haines juggles apparently constant costume changes, postures, and voices.
In a moment when T Bone is sharing a jail cell with Haines' crazed junkyard preacher character, I was so touched by the reverend's situation that I wanted to jump from the moving vehicle that is T Bone N Weasel and follow him into some other play. But I'm not magical like that, so I kept my hands inside the car and got to see Haines play a couple more fun people.
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All three guys have to do some gross-out stuff, and between that, surprises I can't discuss, and the amount of genuine actor sweat that, among other things, destroyed one of Lutz' fake tattoos within three scenes, the small Kax Stage venue is almost overwhelmed with stimuli. I found it helpful to relax and assume it was all on purpose.
The verdict: This show is super-silly, and there's nothing wrong with that. Its thought-provoking content, while minimal, is present and accessible. The technical, skill-based achievements of the artists (including Andrew Osburn, who provides quirky-cool live sound effects) are entirely impressive, and if you like commedia-style sheer goofiness, you'll find it here.
T Bone N Weasel continues through Saturday, June 8, on the Kax Stage on the Van Buren Street side of Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $16; order here or call 602-252-8497.