“Head Over Heels” is an improbable pairing of source material: an epic, 16th-century romance by Elizabethan courtier Sir Philip Sidney and songs by the genius ’80s new-wave band The Go-Go’s.
But it is the musical-theater brainchild of Jeff Whitty who, with his “Avenue Q,” turned the improbable pairing of “Sesame Street”-style puppetry and highly adult themes (poverty, internet pornography, racism) into a Tony Award-winning comedy. So anything’s possible.
Yet another improbability in this production at ArtsWest, and one not often seen on Seattle stages these lean days of slim arts budgets: a huge cast of 18, including a couple of well-polished local Equity actors (Ann Cornelius, Louis Hobson), a smattering of theater greenhorns (the bio of one Microsoft AI specialist/actor tells us he’s “thrilled to be writing his first theater bio!”) and a transgender pop singer/“artivist” (Mila Jam, also known as her YouTube character Britney Huston).
Despite all these improbabilities, the small horde (directed by Mathew Wright) coheres nicely in this goofy, sweet love farce set in the imaginary, paradisiacal kingdom of Arcadia that only has one major problem: heteronormativity, and other old-fashioned ideas about who can marry whom.
Of course, King Basilius (Hobson) doesn’t see it that way. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just got an old-fashioned succession crisis: two daughters who won’t marry right and give him a little grand-king to inherit the throne.
The elder daughter (Alex Sturtevant) refuses her many suitors but has a tempestuous affection for her handmaiden Mopsa (Kataka Corn). The younger daughter (Rheanna Atendido) pines for a golden-tongued shepherd (Eric Dobson) who speaks in Elizabethan eclogues (“on rudesby’s cot in the beaver’d bank our home,/shoot the fardels blow, or with osier-wand/fadge not the pulling cock!”) that nobody can understand.
Meanwhile, scared by some dire-sounding predictions made by the nonbinary Oracle of Delphi (Jam), the king ups stakes and takes his whole court into the forest, hoping to thwart the stormy prophecies. But, as Mopsa says with a cocked eyebrow: “A man oft meets his destiny on the same road he takes to avoid it.”
Confused? Don’t sweat it. Like other Elizabethan romps (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Much Ado About Nothing”), “Head Over Heels” builds an overcomplicated plot as a vehicle for gags — a bunch of wacky people run into a forest for unrequited lust, mistaken identities and general high jinks.
And the cast members look like they’re having fun with it. Hobson plays King Basilius like a boy trying to overcompensate for his self-consciousness at a middle-school dance, flip-flopping between peacock machismo and hand-wringing insecurity. He has a marvelous way of stamping his foot when he’s flustered and the result is a joy to watch. Kataka Corn as Mopsa begins the show in a supporting role (as a top-notch wisecracker), but reveals a powerhouse voice when the handmaiden briefly flees to the Isle of Lesbos — mostly as an excuse to bring The Go-Go’s hit “Vacation” into the score.
By the finale (“We Got the Beat”), identities are revealed, love is affirmed and rigid heteronormativity is overcome. “Head Over Heels” is cute and pleasant. All’s well that ends well.
A new Christmas theater tradition?
On another side of town, and in another fictional world, sketch-comedy group The Habit tries on a fierier stage adaptation with a much higher body count: the 1988 Christmas Eve action-thriller “Die Hard.”
“’Twas the night before Christmas,” narrator/director Mark Siano begins, before F.X. (in this “Die Hard,” the special effects are instantiated as a character wearing a black turtleneck) stops him by pulling out a VHS cassette of the Bruce Willis vehicle. Siano, taking his cue, begins again: “Long, long ago/In the town of L.A./Twelve terr’ists arrived/On Christmas Eve’s day.”
At that point, the audience of “A Very Die Hard Christmas” at Seattle Public Theater was already cheering and, in the next stanza, booed the villain Hans — who, if you recall your ’80s blockbusters, takes a bunch of hostages at the Nakatomi Corporation’s Christmas party in an attempt to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, that favorite financial instrument of big-budget heists. And they would’ve gotten away with it, if not for the resolute New York cop John McClane (played by Jason Marr playing Bruce Willis).
“A Very Die Hard Christmas” is, of course, a low-budget operation and leverages that obvious fact beautifully. In the first scene, and the show’s first dollop of violence, terrorist Karl (Hisam Goueli) shoots a security guard (David Hsieh) with a squirt gun. “WATER!” Hsieh shouts, taking a breath before a long, fast yell: “I’VE BEEN HIT BY WATER WHICH IS FATAL IN THIS WORLD BECAUSE WE HAVE NEITHER THE RESOURCES NOR CITY PERMITS TO SHOOT ACTUAL GUNFIRE IN THIS THEATER SO PLEASE SUSPEND YOUR DISBELIEF FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE PLAY ALSO TURN OFF YOUR CELLPHONES!”
The audience cheered again. “A Very Die Hard Christmas” is like that: silly, unapologetic, poking fun at the movie and poking fun of itself poking fun of the movie. The Habit takes some jabs at the ’80s in general (cocaine, “The Piña Colada Song,” airport voice-overs wishing people a Merry Christmas “which we can still say because it’s 1988”) and “Die Hard” in particular. Marr, as McClane, has an expert Bruce-Willis-lying-in-wait face, with bulging eyes and mouth poised in a perfect O stretched to one side of his face. And the terrorist arsenal of squirt guns, Nerf blasters and pool noodles make gratuitous violence fun again.
This is the second year for “A Very Die Hard Christmas,” and it looks like Seattle might have another Christmas theater tradition in the making alongside our “Christmas Carols” and Dina Martinas. Last year’s “Die Hard” had 19 performances. This year it’s up to 32, and over half of them are already sold out.
Yippee ki yay to all, and to all a good night.
“Head Over Heels” by Jeff Whitty and James Magruder. Through Dec. 19; ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $20-$42; 206-938-0963, artswest.org
“A Very Die Hard Christmas” by Jeff Schell and The Habit. Through Dec. 23; Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Green Lake Drive, Seattle; $26-$32; 206-524-1300, seattlepublictheater.org