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Theater Review

Much ado about nonsense

The rollicking British troupe Hoipolloi gives life to author Edward

March 30, 2009|Reed Johnson

If the great children's nonsense author-illustrator Edward Lear had been born in 1912 instead of 1812, tourists today might flock to Southern California to visit "Learville" instead of Disneyland.

Like Uncle Walt, Lear dreamed up an entire alternative universe of dream-haunting characters with names like the Yongy Bongy Bo and the Pobble Who Has No Toes and strangely resonant lands populated by monkeys with lollipop paws and green-headed, blue-handed people.

Lear's inspired silliness was more than mere child's play. His humor often gave off a melancholy whiff. His wicked satiric streak skewered the prim Victorian moral pedagogy that was used to keep minors in their place -- seen but not heard. And like his contemporary Lewis Carroll, he enjoyed nothing more than taking the mickey out of grown-up pretensions.

The British company Hoipolloi energetically conveys Lear's fastidiously anarchic sense of fun in "My Uncle Arly," the five-person, 70-minute romp that recently wrapped up a run at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

Highly gifted mimics and physical theater performers, Hoipolloi excel at bringing to life Lear's eccentrically drawn human and humanoid figures, with their oddly angled appendages, owl eyes and jutting jaws. Bald, gray-bearded Trond-Erik Vassdal in particular seems to defy anatomy, if not gravity, when he struts bent-kneed and bent at the waist on pointed toes and, later, on no toes at all as the hapless Pobble.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its boisterous spirits, the show is less successful in crafting a story that seeks to shed light on the connection between the personality of the author of "The Jumblies" and "The Owl and the Pussycat" and his creative process. American audiences who don't know a runcible spoon from a Dolomphious Duck likely will have difficulty making heads or tales out of the scattered references to Lear's wayward oeuvre, in dialogue and a handful of mirthful ditties, the funniest of which is titled "Daddy's Dead."

"My Uncle Arly" (named for one of Lear's absurdist verses) envisions the artist (played by Andrew Pembrooke) voyaging by boat and rail to southern Italy to paint the exquisite Mediterranean landscape. A quintessential Englishman on holiday, he finds the Continentals to be an exotic breed of specimens indeed, constantly pitching fits, convulsing with laughter and popping out from behind plants and curtains. As he makes his way south, his encounters grow weirder and darker, culminating in a nightmarish vision of a bantering Mr. Daddy Long-legs (Ben Frimston) and Mr. Floppy Fly (Vassdal).

The implication, of course, is that Lear's foreign wanderings seeded his fertile imagination. Fair enough, although that's about as far as the dramatic conceit goes. Happily, that scarcely distracts from the show's charming oddities.

Pembrooke's Lear is a jolly cipher, alternately amused and perplexed at his predicaments but never less than pleasant company. Hoipolloi's female members, Stefanie Muller and Cassie Friend, like their male colleagues, wield an impressive arsenal of ear-tickling couplets, comically exaggerated accents and facial muggings.

The entire company is adept at turning familiar objects into anthropomorphic creatures -- cargo boxes into talking heads, a painter's easel into a strutting, stork-like figure -- faster than you can say "Fantasia."

Like the eminent Victorian it depicts, "My Uncle Arly" doesn't quite come full circle in its peculiar odyssey. But how many chances do young children, and discerning adults, get to take a theatrical pilgrimage to the great Gromboolian plain and the Hills of the Chankly Bore?

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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