Matt Walker, Eric Anderson, and
Erin Matthews in OthE.L.O.
(© Wesley Horton)
Matt Walker, Eric Anderson, and
Erin Matthews in OthE.L.O.
(© Wesley Horton)
The ugly tale of duplicitous Iago, whispering poisonous rumors into the ear of the dark moor Othello, rarely lends itself to raucous musical comedy. Yet, wall to wall laughs ensue when the irreverent Troubadour Theater Comedy perverts Shakespeare's tragedy to the tunes of the famed 1970s rock band Electric Light Orchestra in OthE.L.O., now at Burbank's Falcon Theatre. The result is the theatrical equivalent of a movie such as Airplane or The Naked Gun -- and I mean that in a good way.

The key plot points of the Bard's story of murder and mayhem are all hit, yet the company respects not a moment of this terrible tale, parodying it through asides to the audience, anachronisms, and musical spoofs. At one point, as Iago contemplates how to ruin his friend, he turns to the audience and begs them "That wasn't a rhetorical question. How?" Even the tragic death of Roderigo becomes a slapstick highlight.

And yes, audience participation is involved -- even encouraged. During a hazardous "tempest," the actors give an audience member a water gun to represent a raging storm. The actors eventually start shooting water at the audience -- ending in a kind of anarchy not seen since Gallagher squashed watermelons at his fans. The cast even stopped the show cold on opening night to serenade two audience members who showed up late with Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Yet, the ribbing is so lighthearted that even the latecomers clapped along.

There is no sense of time and place as the script draws upon modern references such as TJ Maxx and Hurricane Harbor. OthE.L.O. and Desdemona are married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas. Later, when Bianca finds Desdemona's hankie in her lover Cassio's possession, she flips him the back of her hand and goes "No you di-int." The musical segments, led strongly by musical director Eric Heinly, add to the frivolity. "Xanadu" becomes the title number; "Evil Woman" turns into Desdemona's death tome; "Strange Magic" is used to illustrate Iago's inner monologue about his knack for manipulation; Roderigo's version of "Don't Bring Me Down" becomes a karaoke number, and "Living Thing" has been turned into a belly dance.

The cast members, all comic talents, are greatly aided by Sharon McGunigle's often grotesque costumes. Joseph Leo Bwarie, in a Beefeater outfit and pageboy haircut, turns Roderigo into a simpering buffoon. Erin Matthews presents Desdemona as a combination of saintly wife and Paris Hiltonesque spoiled heiress. The hilarious Jen Seifert, switching genders as the Duke, wears a crimped black shirt, tight blood red pants, black leather boots, and puffy, cotton candy auburn hair.

As the scheming Iago, Troubadour artistic director Matt Walker is a dangerous lizard full of humorous asides. Only Eric Anderson as OthE.L.O plays his role straight, as if he had wandered in accidentally from Orson Welles' intense film version. His menace both jars the audience and keeps the play rooted in horror amongst the silliness.

An evening of merriment with enough jokes to delight even the grumpiest theatergoers, OthE.L.O could evolve into the kind of midnight fare that could run for years and years. Stranger magic has happened.