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"The Best of Monty Python"

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | OCTOBER 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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At a technical rehearsal on Tuesday night, the cast and crew of Spamalot coordinate a scene in which the overly enthusiastic Black Knight battles King Arthur — played by Rip Russell — and gets all four of his limbs sliced off in the process.

While one prop arm falls to the ground as planned, the other seems attached to actor Robert Kemp — so Russell continues to repeatedly thrust his plastic sword against the arm, eventually “sawing” it off. After the wave of laughter from the crew dies down, stage manager Ashley Pettit reruns the scene: “Let’s pick it up with the Black Knight: ‘It’s just a flesh wound.’ ”

This famously silly scene will come together for the opening of City Circle Acting Company’s production of Spamalot, adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The comedic musical will take place at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St. at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Oct. 27. The show will run through Nov. 3. Tickets range from $12 to $22.

“There’s a reason Monty Python and the Holy Grail is still a successful movie, and a reason college-age kids are still discovering it,” said Rob Keech, who plays Sir Lancelot in City Circle’s production. “It has a lot of vignettes and random scenes, but it’s basically a silly quest to find the Holy Grail and about finding the grail within you.”

Spamalot was written by Monty Python member Eric Idle in 2004 and went on to worldwide success, winning three Tony Awards in 2005 including Best Musical. The “quest” at the center of the show takes its characters through a zany version of medieval Britain, full of homicidal rabbits, offensive Frenchmen, and knights who say, “Ni.”

Spamalot is two hours of pure fun, and, like all theater, it allows you to escape from life and go into another world,” said Russell, who was working on a theater degree from the University of Iowa around the time of the original Holy Grail film release. “It’s really irreverent absurdist humor with a lot of farce and big sight gags. Nothing is safe from getting poked fun at.”

Not all too fond of Monty Python’s films during the ’70s, director Krista Neumann admitted Spamalot initially was not her top choice of musicals to make her City Circle directing début — until she saw some YouTube clips of the show and a performance by a touring group in Cedar Rapids.

“I’m a sucker for a good comedy,” she said. “The sign of a good musical comedy is if you leave the theater humming the songs, and with Spamalot, the songs are catchy tunes that stick with you.”

By combining “the best of Monty Python,” Neumann said, Spamalot’s sight gags and absurdist humor are engrained in the songs and script.

“Having said that, if you gave it to a group of dead actors, they could probably ruin it,” she said. “And we have an incredibly great cast. They really make the comedy come alive. I’ve been laughing for six weeks.”

Sarah Blakeslee secured her “dream role” when she was cast as the show’s biggest diva, the Lady of the Lake — a character not present in the original film, but who adds elements of romance and comedic melodrama.

“She gets to sing in a bunch of different styles and be over-the-top crazy, which is what I do a lot of the time,” Blakeslee said. “It’s fun to make a fool of yourself on stage for the benefit of the audience.”

Despite the inherent silliness of Spamalot, Russell said there is more to the musical than jokes. A prime example, he said, is captured in one of his favorite scenes, in which King Arthur’s knights are lost in a dark forest and the coconut-clapping character Patsy cheers them up with the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

“I think it kind of summarizes the play — no matter how dark things are or lost you feel, always look on the bright side of life, take another step,” Russell said.

This spirit of optimism has been carried through by City Circle and the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, who are sponsoring a food drive in collaboration with the Coralville Ecumenical Food Pantry, asking theater-goers to donate nonperishable food items, including Spam.

As for the performance itself, Keech said audiences can expect a “well put together” show, from the handmade props and costumes to the commitment of the cast and crew.

“It’s not treated like community theater; it’s treated like regional or professional theater,” Keech said. “The reason we’re doing it is because we love it, and you can tell the people behind City Circle are passionate about putting on shows.”

Whether you’re a Monty Python devotee or are just in the mood for a chuckle or two (or three, or more), Neumann said, Spamalot should resonate with Iowa City and Coralville audiences.

“This area is an intelligent, well-educated area and Monty Python’s humor is very intelligent,” she said. “I’m hoping people come see the show and then come see it a second time. It’s that funny.”

Neumann said one should not underestimate the power of a good comedy.

“What’s more therapeutic than laughter?” she said. “Being in a room full of human beings and laughing together is something you need to do as much as possible. It certainly couldn’t hurt.”


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