Monday, 9 August 2010

Agnes the Barbarian Review Reviews: SF Appeal

It's refreshing to have another subcategory for the "Review Reviews," this time for Agnes the Barbarian.  This time, SF Appeal (SF for San Francisco).

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.

So, it starts off well. Then...

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 area 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.

So... area rock is patently ridiculous, then?  The thing is, Tenacious D love that stuff.  They can't get enough of it.  Mocking is something you do to something you hate.  It's taunting via shallow imitation.  Poking fun at something you love is something else altogether: self-deprecation.  Self-deprecation is parody: mockery is satire.  And satire isn't always funny, nor is it always intended to be so.

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.

"Smirking Condescension" is something without which a good farce is entirely possible - I'd even say it's what separates the gems from the detritus. There's a difference between honest lampooning of faults or tropes, and being condescending about it: most notably, a distinct lack of maturity. Compare the likes of Airplane! and High Anxiety to Meet the Spartans and the ____ Movie series: the former are permeated with "genuine appreciation" for the source material, while the latter seem to treat their sources with little more than thinly-veiled, sarcastic contempt - or "smirking condescension." The gap in quality between the two groups is vast: while affection for the source material may not be required, and I'm not seeking to prove some sort of correlation, it seems to be the case that more good parodies have a decent amount of affection in them than the bad ones do.

Of course, good satire is a different animal, but even then, smirking condescension is surely less powerful than biting, belligerent wit.  The most powerful satires are pointed, savage and relentless - so much so, that it's as likely to result in deathly silence as to riotous laughter.  Satire and parody are two very different things, and it's clear Agnes is a parody.

Besides which, I can't really see a use for smirking condescension in any context, save one to provide an excuse for a good skelp on the cheek. Condescension in any shape or form is irritating in the extreme.

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.

I... I... I got nothing. The reviewer seems to be under the delusion that the Hyborian Age takes place during recorded history. And that Conan and "Krull" shared the same epoch. And that Kevin Sorbo only played one REH character (and even then that's seriously pushing it), and I sure can't remember Howard ever writing about wisecracking Hercules or Captain Dylan Hunt. The silly person can't even take a few seconds to check Wikipedia to get Kull's name right. I guess this is the sort of "smirking condescension" he or she is talking about. Hate to break it to ya, kiddo, but condescension doesn't work when the person you're talking down to knows you're talking complete balderdash.

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.

Based on what parts of the script Jason sent me, I could at lest rely on him in some parts (Elseworlds Conan, Elseworlds Conan, Elseworlds Conan...) but I never could've imagined him taking the title role!  Heh, above and beyond, methinks.

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.

Unfortunately, not everything really works. WMD gags were overplayed when the WMD controversy was new. And if you're going to look for commentary on the Iraq war (or at least the applicability of such a work to current events) one needn't go further than the source:

Such a wave of enthusiasm and rejoicing as swept the land is frequently the signal for a war of conquest. So no one was surprized when it was announced that King Tarascus had declared the truce made by the late king with their western neighbors void, and was gathering his hosts to invade Aquilonia. His reason was candid; his motives, loudly proclaimed, gilded his actions with something of the glamor of a crusade. He espoused the cause of Valerius, “rightful heir to the throne”; he came, he proclaimed, not as an enemy of Aquilonia, but as a friend, to free the people from the tyranny of a usurper and a foreigner.
- The Hour of the Dragon, Robert E. Howard... written in 1935

I'm dreading the LotR comparisons if "The Phoenix on the Sword" ever gets an adaptation...

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.

I haven't seen Year One yet. My distaste for Michael Cera and ambivalence to Jack Black (how I loathe and like him) notwithstanding, this sounds an awful like the sort of stuff not just Terry Pratchett, but Monty Python was doing too. Life of Brian, anyone?

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.

That, too, sounds extremely Pratchettesque.

Even though the show is essentially a follow-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger breakout role...

On that, I think we can agree, given the frightening similarities Agnes the Barbarian shares with King Conan: Crown of Iron.  (And only one of them's meant to be a parody!)

... 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.

Mel Brooks! That's another one.  Man, if I were Jason, to be considered in the same sentence as Mel Brooks would be awesome (unless Jason doesn't like Mel Brooks for some unholy reason).

So it seems Agnes the Barbarian succeeds with the general crowd who don't know their Robert E. Howard from their Robert E. Lee - I suspected it would, since the novelty is there, and it sounded like the sort of crowd-pleasing thing one would get.  I haven't yet heard from any Californian Howard fans on the production, though.  I guess that'll be Agnes the Barbarian's hardest battle.  In the meantime, I suspect further reviews will be of this ilk - next to no knowledge of the source material outside of the films and maybe the comics, assuming that having Conan being swamped by paperwork and courtly bureaucracy is some sort of gag in itself, and that Agnes' bookish, independent, politically-minded daughter would be nothing like any of Howard's heroines.  Ah, well, at least he didn't bring up the suicide or some of the more stupid "factoids," or blame something from the films on Howard.

... Sacramento?


  1. Well it is from a San Francisco paper.. the home of University of California Berkley.. No greater den of scum and villainy and what not..

    I can't really say as I expect much else.. I hope the play makes its way to video, I'd like to see it..

    I think a lot of the review is simply trying to figure out a way to enjoy something which is otherwise out of fashion by cloaking your enjoyment of it under a guise of Ironic Detachment.

    You're allowed to like almost anything so long as you only do it Ironically.

    Thing is, it just makes the people who do that stuff look like a bunch of prats.

  2. Ah, yes, ironic detachment. I recall a Bill Bailey gag where he says he's a strict vegetarian: he still eats meat, but he only does it Ironically.

    I guess my opinion of SanFran is forever tainted by that episode of South Park, but at least it cleans up by the time Starfleet comes around.

  3. Bill Bailey has been a favorite of mine ever since I saw him as the stoner/hippy/D&D playing drug dealer in "Saving Grace"..

  4. Well said man. This is why I prefer to read reviews from "geek"-oriented sites and magazines! (and I use the word "geek" affectionatelly, I'm one of them)