“This show uses gunshots and strobe lights,” a voice informs the audience. So begins the motif of unexpected pairs that will dominate “Valhalla.” Paul Rudnick’s play (and the senior project of Irene Casey ’14, Maggie Ditre ’14 and Spencer Klavan ’14) weaves together the separate lives of another unlikely twosome: protagonists James Avery and Prince Ludwig, who both live in pursuit of beauty. Avery, a World War II-era lusty Texan kleptomaniac, struggles with unrequited love — at one point, not even the line “Dontcha just hate Hitler?” can get him traction with the object of his affection — and his need for all things beautiful. His unlikely complement, 19th Century Bavarian Prince Ludwig, works to find a wife and rule his country well when all he’d really like to do is see the opera “Lohengrin” again.
The stage is set so that it can transition easily between Texas and Bavaria, which it does well. The set is simple, with a platform on stage right that easily transforms from (among other things) a middle school boy’s bedroom in Dainsville to royal bedchambers in Europe. These switches happen without any change of scenery, and though they happen quickly — or sometimes not at all, as when two conversations in two different centuries happen (somehow) at the same time — it is never confusing. Much of this clarity is thanks to the effective costumes, which range from World War II uniforms to gold-trimmed shawls specially designed for humpbacks, to a wedding dress that fits a 6-foot tall man.
Just as it transitions from Texas to Bavaria, the play rapidly vacillates — sometimes seamlessly, sometimes haltingly — between profound despair and mocking hilarity (“Just today I was the loneliest humpback in Europe!” “Was there a contest?”). When smooth, these shifts are funny and smart. When abrupt — probably more the fault of the script than of the direction — they are jarring, but the dialogue regains its momentum once the shift is established.
Some of the show’s humor is undoubtedly owed to its excellent characters, crafted well by Rudnick but enlivened by the actors. James Avery (Klavan) — the Texan who, at 10 years old, gives his mother surprisingly astute criticisms of her interior decorating failures — has no trouble keeping the audience amused. Sporting a hilarious middle-parted hairdo, Prince Ludwig (Eric Sirakian ’15) strikes just the right balance between hilariously fretful and naïvely engrossed in his daydreams. One of his — and indeed, the play’s — best scenes was the procession of European female aristocracy, presented to Ludwig as potential brides, which came off like an MTV dating show.
The members of the six-person cast who acted in multiples roles were particularly impressive. Juliana Canfield ’14 played a host of entertaining women, often maternal figures, the best of which was a middle-aged, chatty Jewish tour guide who intentionally mispronounces words like “chandeliers.” Connor Lounsbury ’14 played a deranged younger brother, a hermaphrodite princess, and nearly everything in between — and managed to find a unique hilarity in each persona.
Despite its actors’ many successes, “Valhalla” was not perfect. Some moments of choreography were more believable than others: Ludwig’s convincing struggle to lift the throne to which he had chained himself (in an unsuccessful attempt to beat his opera addiction), for example, felt far less staged than the many homoerotic wrestling scenes. The lighting cues, while interesting (many of them came in response to a character’s snap) were a little slow. At the end, the play’s pace dragged, and there were a few moments that seemed nonsensical — in one instance, the six actors (playing characters from different centuries) paired off and began to dance to Bach’s third orchestra suite, and later “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B.” In “Valhalla,” many things happen at once, for better or for worse.
More important than its small flaws, the play preserved a sense of humor, the kind of humor you feel comfortable laughing aloud at un-self-consciously. Something about the unlikely duo of the prince and the petty thief, paired with ridiculous moments — meeting your soulmate when you’re both in the woods planning to kill yourselves, or a wedding officiator speaking like an Elvis impersonator — made “Valhalla” entertaining in unpredictable ways. The team took a funny text and made it funnier, landing nearly every joke, squeezing every ounce of potential comedy out of each costume and each encounter. The play is full of chaos, but this chaos is a whole lot of fun.