For a moment there on Monday night I had my doubts about my fellow Fringe-goers. After reading the rave reviews on the Fringe site, I joined the near-capacity crowd at Illusion for what I expected to be a smart, hilarious take on Lolita. Ten minutes in, all I could think was that those reviewers must be real suckers for “fat guy in a bikini” gags.
Let me back up for a moment. As I’ve noted before, my usual late night kick is live music. I especially like going to see music on Monday nights, because the crowds are usually small and the performers are extra appreciative – “Thanks for coming out on a Monday” is a common refrain – and I had the idea that theater might be on the same wavelength. The ghost town of downtown Minneapolis seemed to support my thesis as I hustled toward the Cowles Center just before 10, but once I stepped off the elevator onto the 8th floor I could see that Monday was no deterrent in this particular case. The lobby was packed enough that I briefly worried I wouldn’t be able to get in, especially since I’d stupidly forgotten my press pass at home. I made it, but I was relegated to the rafters, and even those last few rows were mostly full. Apparently for the right show there’s no such thing as a case of the Mondays, even at 10pm.
Like I said, the show itself initially left me wanting. I’m a great fan of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita and a somewhat less enthusiastic appreciator of Stanley Kubrick’s Nabokov-scripted film adaptation. My fondness for the source material combined with the audience raves was enough to make Four Humors’ Lolita: A Three-Man Show a must-see for me. Still, I was wary going in. Novelty adaptations wear me out pretty quickly. Once it’s been established that, yep, that guy is doing Macbeth in the voices of a bunch of Simpsons characters, or that, yep, that’s the cast of Family Guy recreating a scene from Star Wars, I’m ready to call it a joke and move on.
That’s where I was in the early going. It was quickly established that, yep, the decidedly non-nymphettish Brant Miller was playing a sexually precocious 12-year-old girl, and, yep, Ryan Lear was doing a broad (and admittedly entertaining) James Mason impression, and, yep, Matt Spring was vamping about in a Shelly Winters housedress, and at first the show seemed content that all of this was inherently amusing enough to fill out the hour. The audience around me howled with laughter while I tried to sort out just what I was missing. I took solace that Lear’s toothsome narration included lengthy passages from the novel. Nabokov’s prose is enough to entertain me in nearly any context. (And, I might add, his words drew plenty of laughs from the crowd. You still got it, Vlad!)
But a funny thing happened about a third of the way into the show, around the time the cast broke character to sort out the difference between Shelly Winters and Shelly Duvall. Breaking the fourth wall is another device that often makes me leery, but here it was perfectly executed and served a real purpose. As the three actors slipped out of their Hollywood caricatures and into their secondary roles of three enthusiastic but none-too-bright movie lovers, I started to see more of what they going for. This was more than the amiable goof on Lolita that I initially wrote it off as. This was a sly examination of how we appreciate, absorb and idolize art. It had been evident from the start that Four Humors knew a lot about Lolita, but only now was it becoming clear how much they loved it.
I loosened up after that and let myself laugh along with the rest of the crowd. I let myself laugh a lot, as a matter of fact, and I also did a fair bit of thinking. By the time things wrapped up with a twist that was equal parts side-splitting and thought-provoking, I’d come all the way around to adoring the show. Beneath its slapsticky surface, this play had plenty to say about art, pop culture, hell, even American society in general. I suppose I should have known better than to doubt the raves of the Fringe faithful.
All things considered, not bad for a Monday night.