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Swan Song 

How does one wrap one's mind around Valhalla? Not the mythological Hall of the Slain, where Norse warriors went to their eternal reward. I am referring to Valhalla the comedy by Paul Rudnick that recently received a scintillating production at the Marigny Theater.

In fact, Norse mythology is one of the few things this scattershot drama doesn't touch on. Valhalla is not about a single situation. It's a postmodern centrifugal divertimento that seems to want to spin its various plots off into space, but it is as amusing as it is confusing. The moment-by-moment enjoyment is not dampened by a lingering exasperation about how the contrasted narratives interconnect.

Ultimately, the clue to the mystery is a small, jeweled casket. The casket was ordered from Russia by Ludwig II (1864-1868), also known as the Mad King of Bavaria, or more gently, the Swan King. The latter nickname referred to the swan-shaped boat in which he liked to glide along on his underground lake in the vast, baroque grotto he built beneath one of his many extravagant castles.

All right, no problem thus far " beyond the enigmatic psyche of the monarch, who was eventually declared non compos mentis, deposed and locked up. Ludwig's antics, however, are only half the play. The other half follows some small-town Texas boys in the 1940s. James Avery (Keith Launey) is a wild kid and has been from an early age. He's sweet on his buddy, Henry Lee Stafford (Chris Weaver), and they start fooling around " masturbating together and such. The homosexual courtship continues off and on through many misadventures. Then James gets jailed for shoplifting a crystal swan. This is an important symbol, as it turns out, because the Mad King of Bavaria was also hopelessly obsessed by beauty and especially prized an artificial swan in the form of his boat. Eventually, James burns down his parents' house and gets sent to reform school for two years.

While he's away, Henry Lee gets engaged to Sally Mortimer (Liz Mills), the prettiest girl in town. Upon his release, James returns determined to resume the romance with Henry Lee " and perhaps have a fling or two with the young bride as well, since they were also once sweethearts of sorts.

The play leaps back and forth between Jerkwater, Texas, and the kingdom of Bavaria (not to mention between the 19th and 20th centuries). Ludwig is groomed for the throne by his formidable mother, Queen Marie (Cammie West). However, he can't abide any of the court maidens offered to him, and you can't blame him. One day, he goes out in the woods and is about to shoot himself in the head when he encounters a woman equally armed and distraught. They fall for one another despite the fact that she's a humpback. They get engaged, but Ludwig keeps delaying the wedding. Do we have yet another parallel with the Texas twosome in the king's unclear sexual preferences?

It's hard to give an adequate idea of how funny all this mayhem is. Under Glenn Meche's direction, a remarkable cast moved easily through the zigzags of the story " from poignant moment to total, surreal nonsense. If the cast had been less inspired, this epic comedy could have become a tedious conundrum. But as it was, Valhalla delights even when one get lost. All the players, except Shannon Williams as the explosive, erratic Ludwig, played multiple parts and had a good old time doing it. Carlos Gonzalez filled out the cast as a major domo, princess and army sergeant.

Eventually, the story pulls the two plots together. During World War II, the two Texas boys become soldiers and parachute behind enemy lines into Bavaria. They come upon Ludwig's castle, and they are knocked out by it. James steals Ludwig's jeweled casket. Henry Lee is shot, but James survives and takes the casket home with him. Theoretically it contains Ludwig's heart, but when the casket is opened, it is found to contain the stolen crystal swan from long ago. And so by the most nonlinear of paths, we have come full circle.

The final tableau shows the crystal swan in a spotlight on a small pedestal. A curious feeling of satisfaction emanates from the fragile, transparent icon. But why? Are Texas and Bavaria the same on some existential level? The satisfaction seems to be more on the order of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Pooh, pooh to you!" In fact, the whole play, despite it's postmodern intricacies, derives much of its fun from the sort of irreverence that the D'Oyly Carte Duo brought to the stage around the same time that the Mad King was building his castles.

click to enlarge Wonk Valhalla intertwines the bizarre adventures of Ludwig II and a couple of American soldiers from Texas.
  • Wonk Valhalla intertwines the bizarre adventures of Ludwig II and a couple of American soldiers from Texas.


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