Theater Review: Equestrian absurdity at 'The Derby County Derby'
October 5, 2012
Vertigo Productions is off to an outstanding start with its first original offering of the school year, a madcap little number called “The Derby County Derby.” Set in imaginary Derby County, Ky., this gleeful work of fiction examines the events leading up to and transpiring during the titular horse race, arguably (by the town’s standards) the most important in the world. Writers Sam Fishell, Matthew Hays, Alex Jacobs and Brendan Scannell – all of whom star in the show as well – concoct a zany web of rivalries, romance and emotional stakes, the heart of which rests on the shoulders of a “terminably” ill country child named Ponyboy and the potential for his disease to be cured with the help of some prize money. If this sounds at all melodramatic, it’s not. The show sidesteps pathos at almost every turn, stamping out recognizable signs of humanity and rendering its characters wholly cartoon-like.
The approach works like a charm. “Derby” is ridiculously funny; it resides in a theatrical world where nothing is sacred and all that’s familiar is subject to offensive reinterpretation. The show is also laudably inventive: Rather than relying on the same few gags, it sends forward an endless barrage of colorful supporting roles and bizarre situations so that few of its elements ever grow stale. Among its more inspired bits are a donut-loving butler, a doctor who cures horses with a handgun and a performance-enhancing drug trip during which one of the audience members in my showing received a face-full of an actor’s groin. There’s not a lot of restraint in this show, but that’s part of the appeal.
“Derby” thrills because there’s no direction it’s unwilling to take. Yet while the plot winds up all over the map (believe me, it’s not worth getting into details here), the show feels focused and bottomlessly clever. It’s an intelligent play about unintelligent people, but it respects its characters enough to imbue them with genuine emotional integrity, even as it kills a number of them off at the end. The actors, all juggling multiple characters, are willing to do anything for a laugh, though their performances never seem desperate – they exercise tight control over their personas while letting them run totally wild. It’s a spectacle.
“The Derby County Derby” at the Shanley Pavilion was produced by Ford Altenbern and directed by Michael Janák. Its ferociously funny stars include Lindsay Chambers, Sam Fishell, Matthew Hays, Eliza Helm, Alex Jacobs, Isabella Mehiel, Brendan Scannell, Kyle Sherman and Sarah Sherman.