August 4, 2010
By Sam Hurwitt (The Idiolect)
THEATER REVIEW: SAN FRANCISCO
Shakespeare, schmakespeare—and don’t even talk to me about Neil Simon. (Seriously, just don’t.) I think we all know by now that what the Bay Area really needs is more plays about Conan the Barbarian.
Fortunately, San Francisco’s parody-prone Thunderbird Theatre Company is all over that action. Thunderbird’s new comedy Agnes the Barbarian catches up with the sullen, shirtless sword-slinger a couple decades after creator Robert E. Howard was done with him. With his bloody rise from Cimmerian mercenary and thief to king of Aquilonia long behind him, Conan has grown fat and balding and bedeviled by bureaucracy. He’s involved in a foreign war without even knowing why, just signing the scrolls his advisors bring him.
What’s worse, his teenage daughter is driving him nuts. Agnes wears modest clothing and spends her time reading or talking about philosophy with her friends—it’s like her parents’ barbarian values are one big joke to her. The only thing to do, his evil advisors tell him, is to send her unarmed on a quest to slay the fearsome Gargranox so that she can learn what it means to be a barbarian.
I’m sorry, did I say evil advisors? Yeah, there’s that. His grand vizier Gygax and her assistant Arnesen (yep, named after the creators of Dungeons & Dragons) are secretly foreign saboteurs keeping Conan doped up and wrapped up in a needless war as part of their fiendish takeover plot for Aquilonia’s downfall. Agnes’s quest is just their scheme to kill off Conan’s heir.
Agnes the Barbarian is written by Jason Harding, fabled scribe of Thunderbird’s past pirate comedy Lusty Booty and a staple of the acting company who’s played memorable roles such as Citizen Kane in 2007’s Aaah! Rosebud! Harding also plays a forceful Conan, his booming voice grousing of the soft indignities of royal life, usually closing with a petulant “I am Conan!”
It’s one of Thunderbird’s better shows all around, with an awfully funny script and no weak links in the cast. Director Shay Casey keeps the pace hopping, aside from some laborious scene changes. Harding also designed the appropriately spartan set with a large map and hanging banners written in some runic alphabet and a pelt-draped throne. The amusingly impractical barbarian costumes by Sarah Breindel, Annie Kim and Mary Bishop are spot-on genre-appropriate as well.
Jaime Lee Currier makes a marvelously appealing protagonist as Agnes, rolling her eyes at her embarrassing parents and overcoming challenges in distinctly un-barbarianlike ways such as girl talk with a heartbroken evil sorceress. A commandingly self-assured Jennifer Lucas does double duty as the aforementioned witch Ral Partha—a strong woman who’s just going through a rough patch, still getting those manipulative “I miss you” crystal-ball calls from her recent ex, Sauron—and Conan’s lusty barbarian queen Zenobia.
Tavis Kammet is hilarious as the wild-eyed narrator Shitake, with a sonorous oratorical style like something from a samurai movie, who joins Agnes’s quest despite the exposition curse that keeps him talking in third person instead of participating in direct conversation. The way he helps commiserate with Ral Partha despite the gag over his mouth is particularly priceless. Mary Bishop also tags along as garrulous Mrs. Bastard, a kindly, cockney-accented peasant who helps tutor Agnes in the way of the barbarian—or tries to, anyway. Jeremy Cole provides the voice of the fey, purely decorative magic sword Pointronius.
Dana Goldberg is a fine mix of deferential bureaucrat and cackling villain as Gygax, and Dan Kurtz’s Arnesen has a charming shtick of keeps forgetting he’s supposed to be an unquestioning henchman and not a chummy coworker. Cary Klataske is a sympathetic beast as the Gargranox, and Jason Pienkowski is amusing in the smaller roles of the Pythonesque old dung peddler Mr. Bastard (Filthy to his friends) and Brooklyn-accented assassin Ian da Strange.
Although it’s clearly rooted in the sword-and-sorcery genre, right down to the bombastic hard rock soundtrack, you don’t need to know King Kull from Old King Cole to appreciate the broad humor and hearty swordfights. It’s a delightful romp that could bring a smile to the lips of the grim god Crom himself, and that’s no Hyborian hyperbole. Well, maybe just a little.
Agnes the Barbarian plays through August 14 at EXIT Theatre, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco. http://thunderbirdtheatre.com