One of Louisville's on-stage gems quietly celebrated its tenth anniversary last night at The Bard's Town. Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble kicked off a decade in production with one-third of the troupe in “Test Subjects,” a two-hander comedy about the love/hate relationships we have with our handheld devices presented through a Warner Bros.-meets-Vaudeville lens.
As tenth anniversary season kick-offs go, this production was under-stated but effective — like a champagne toast garnished with Pop Rocks.
In this show, co-artistic directors Kyle Ware and Kristie Rolape (who also write, compose, choreograph, and direct) play thinly-veiled versions of themselves performing in a postmodern-Lucy-and-Desi-with-a-dash-of-Stella sort of variety show. “We are the world's wordiest physical comedy troupe,” Rolape confesses, in what has to be the most economical summary of the Le Petomane aesthetic to date. They love language and pratfalls, and attack both with equal gusto.
At the top of the act, nestled between the song-and-dance show opener and the words from the show's (fake) sponsor Grape-Nuts, Rolape convinces Ware to join her as a guinea pig for a new tech test-drive some sketchy guy on the street convinced her to join. Soon, a device named TODD that looks like an old iPod Touch but seems to be self-aware is controlling their movements (literally making them dance) and flipping the two from character to character in an extended two-person murder mystery sequence.
Ware plays the grumbling straight man to Rolape's volatile, wide-eyed clown — she's the Bugs Bunny in this piece, throwing props and changing costumes and accents (southern waitress, dippy psychic … New York sanitation worker?) on a dime to misdirect the Sherlockian detective Ware transforms into thanks to the mysterious device. As in most Le Petomane shows, there's a funny original song — Rolape sings and learns how to play harmonica on “Post-Apocalyptic Blues in G,” with a little coaching from Ware. (“No, no, you can't sing the blues like a Disney princess.”)
Both Ware and Rolape are funny and extremely at ease in this production. Le Petomane shows are built from scratch, rarely finalized until right before opening, and both performers improvise with an off-handed attitude that belies their years of training and trust. Meta jokes are tossed off with a wink (“Because the twin cousin is grossly underwritten!” pronounces Ware's deductive detective.) and the special effects are delightfully threadbare.
Here's the bummer: the house for opening night was pretty sparse. That doesn't always make a difference. But in this style of improvisational, highly-charged comedy, performers gain a lot from an appreciative audience, as the energy grows throughout the entire room. There were spots about two-thirds of the way through the brisk 80-minute show where the energy flagged a bit, but with a larger, louder crowd, those bits will likely take on a new urgency.
Though this reviewer can acknowledge that it is not all about her, it would have been nice to see the entire ensemble perform in the first show of the tenth season. Sometimes Le Petomane's production modesty trickles into their strategy. But ten years in Louisville producing highly original plays on a doggedly low budget deserves a bit of fireworks.
Rare is the show these days that can feature all six artists, as they stay successful and in demand outside of the ensemble — Tony Dingman, for example, opens another season of his baby, “An Evening With Poe,” at the Frazier History Museum later this month; Heather Burns heads up the Blue Apple Players education program, and Gregory Maupin and Abigail Bailey Maupin have been writing a new commissioned adaptation of “Robin Hood” to make its world premiere at Stage One Family Theatre later this season, among other projects.
Luckily, Le Petomane continues the season in November with an original comedy in the upcoming Slant Culture Theatre Festival. “On the Circuit” Of course it will. Here's to ten years of Le Petomane's wild genius in Louisville — and many more.