One of the dumbest things a theatre company can do in establishing a play’s mood is to the waste the first opportunity they have to make an impression. From the moment someone walks into a theatre, they are at some level, immersed in the world of the play–even if the curtain has yet to rise. Most companies fill this pre-show space with music but few are particularly deliberate about their song choices. Sure, there’s generally a wide-swath effort to pair upbeat pop songs with whimsical comedies and morose ballads with heart-rending dramas, but rarely does a song played before a show tell you exactly what to expect the moment the actors come onstage.
Thunderbird Theatre Company‘s world premiere comedy, Agnes the Barbarian, is a welcome exception. Before playwright Jason Harding’ s hilarious a-historical farce, Tenacious D’s “Wonderboy” blasted over the theatre’s sound system. Tenacious D, a band comprised of comic actors Jack Black and Kyle Gass, lovingly mocks arena rock clichés by embracing them so wholeheartedly they’re rendered even more patently ridiculous then they were originally. “Wonderboy” is the band’s self-aggrandizing origin story, in which our heroes meet for the first time, band together on an epic quest and slay a ferocious beast. Tinged with Led Zeppelin’s penchant for heavy riffs and mystical imagery, the song is a perfect corollary for Agnes The Barbarian, a play that follows the same basic structure (young hero sets out on adventure, meets friends along way and ends up successfully running her sword through something evil) and has a similar relationship with its source material: a blend of genuine appreciation and the kind of smirking condescension without which good farce is impossible.
When: Thursdays – Sundays, 8PM until Aug 14
Where: The EXIT Theatre 156 Eddy Street
The source material here is the post-stone age, pre-Roman world of swords and sorcery created in the 1930s by Texas writer Robert E. Howard and inhabited by Conan the Barbarian, Krull the Conqueror and pretty much every character ever played by Kevin Sorbo. Aging, balding, increasingly corpulent and perennially shirtless, Conan (ably played by the playwright) has ruled Aquilonia with not quite an iron fist for decades, but is currently vexed by both the constant stream of paperwork given to him by his scheming, corporate-style advisers intent on destroying the kingdom and his ever-rebellious daughter, Agnes.
See, Agnes doesn’t want to be a barbarian. She much prefers the Utopian, left-wing ideals espoused by her unseen pen pal to the violent, ignorant way of her barbarian, Crom worshipping forbears. Conan hates how Agnes, “struts about the castle, fully dressed, reading books,” and wishes instead she was more like a traditional barbarian woman, “more of a smolderer or a temptress.” But like most parents, his most serious complaint is that she always leaves her dirty laundry on the floor of the throne room instead of in the hamper where it belongs.
Conan’s advisers, who have conned him into getting bogged down in a war to eliminate a foreign power’s weapons of mass destruction (namely zombies and catapults) that turned out to be as imaginary as their real-life counter-parts, need Agnes dead to complete their plan. They convince Conan the best way to reform his daughter is by sending her on dangerous quest for which she’s utterly unprepared and equals her certain doom.
Much like in Harold Ramis’s uneven, yet underrated, Year One, most of the humor in Agnes the Barbarian comes from anachronism–the incongruity of trying to apply our modern sensibilities to an unrepentantly pre-modern time.
Evil sorceresses have to deal with ex-boyfriends who call them relentlessly, and crossbow wielding assassins talk like they just walked off the set of The Sopranos. The aforementioned royal advisers assure their victims that their evil deeds are, “nothing personal, only business” and make everyone sign everything in triplicate. Unlike some of the show’s baser running gags, the humor of anachronism never gets old, thanks to the sharp characterizations and snappy pacing.
Even though the show is essentially a follow-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger breakout role, the figure looming large over the production isn’t one based in Sacramento–it’s Mel Brooks. From its incessant breaking of the fourth wall and winking pop-culture references to its Borscht Belt comic sensibility, Agnes the Barbarian could be presented as Mel Brooks’s take on the fantasy genre without anyone batting an eyelash.
Small companies like Thunderbird that regularly create and perform original, unpretentiously populist works are a rarity in the Bay Area and Agnes the Barbarian is another feather in their already pretty accomplished cap. Also, not a single person in the cast attempts an Austrian accent–not even for a moment. Crom be praised!