FUNNYMAN ARI HOPTMAN IS A PRODUCT OF AN OLDER ERA OF COMEDY -- in conversation, he's liable to launch into a song made popular by Groucho Marx or Tom Lehrer, and he peppers his Facebook page with quizzes about trivial details from '60s and '70s sitcoms. So, it's no surprise that Tales ... of the Expected, his re-telling of two children's tales and one especially bureaucratic nautical tale, seems to borrow, in equal parts, from early Mad Magazine and the Fractured Fairy Tales that used to appear in Jay Ward's cartoons.
Hoptman has a keen cast here, including himself; he's got a certain calmness to his stage persona, like a thoughtful college professor (which he doubles as in real life) who is in the habit of saying perfectly ridiculous things. There's a fair amount of cast overlap between this show and Josh Scrimshaw's The Harty Boys, including Leslie Ball, who has demonstrated a talent for light comedy in this Fringe Festival, and Scrimshaw himself. In Tales, the latter often resembles a Mad Magazine cartoon, actually, especially in the first segment, when he portrays the main character in Hoptman's version of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" fable. Scrimshaw plays a rather dimwitted character, and so he props his head up at the very top of his neck and pastes wide eyes and a dimwitted smile on it - he could be an image drawn by Mad regular Jack Davis.
Scrimshaw then plays a king in the second of the tales, bare-chested and wearing a fur coat, and -- come to think of it -- this character, too, is a Jack Davis image come to life. The tale in question is "Rumpelstiltskin;" the eponymous lead is played by Ben Chadwick, who is a rather big fellow that everybody insists on calling a dwarf. He plays most of his scenes opposite Carolyne Pool; their scenes together have a spacey give and take, a mixture of amiability and malice, such as when he demands her first born from her, but then offers to instead take her earring. "This earrings?" she yelps, grasping her ears. "Oh, hell no."
It's in the third scene that the plays really gets in to Hoptman's distinctive humor; it's not going to appeal to everybody, as Hoptman takes a dry pleasure in unusual couplings, and he really digs in here: the third scene is a tale of three sailors whose sole task is to ferry people across a small river, but who nonetheless behave as though they're sea dogs from a 1940s Michael Curtiz high-seas adventure tale, their dialogue full of robust and lusty "yarrs!" They come up against an entirely reasonable plan to build a bridge across the river, something which would put them out of work, and the two set out to do battle. These preparations involve studying up on community planning at the local library -- Hoptman builds an epic scene out of the three sailors' attempts to purchase a card that will allow them to make photocopies. It's conceptually funny, and, if you're in the right state of mind, uproarious; if you're not in the right state of mind, however, the results feel a little Kafkaesque, as though Josef K., the troubled character at the center of The Trial, had suddenly interrupted his bureaucratic nightmare to throw out a few daffy puns.
Fringe performance details for this show:
Tales ... of the Expected by Ari Hoptman is on stage at the University of Minnesota's Rarig Center Proscenium for one remaining show: August 8 @ 5: 30 pm.
Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics.
About the author: Max Sparber is an arts writer and playwright, as well as being the editor of the MnSpeak section of Secrets of the City and Daily Glean writer for MinnPost. Max is an active blogger, and most of his own projects, as well as his arts writing, can be found on his blog at http://www.sparberfans.blogspot.com/.