Sanger Rainsford (played by Joey Hamburger) and Eve Trowbridge (Iris Page) listen as Count Zaroff (Michael Hugh Torsch) regales them with tales of his passion for the hunt.
Richard Connell's 1924 short story 'The Most Dangerous Game' is one of those classics that's been riffed on so much that even the original now runs the risk of being labeled a hack job by people who saw a parody first. (Like when internet trolls argue that 'Lord of the Rings' is just a 'Star Wars' or 'Harry Potter' rip-off, and not everyone in the comments disagrees.)
The gist of the story is a gist we all know. In fact, it's so well known there's even a TV Trope named for it. You know it because, even if you skipped that day in 7th Grade lit when everyone read it, you probably still saw the story in a Gilligan's Island rerun. There's no reason to go into too much plot recap, so here's a brief summary: In Hamburger's own words, it's "the classic story about a ship-trapped hunter getting hunted by another hunter on his own private hunting island."
Hamburger plays two roles, as both scriptwriter and the actor playing leading man Sanger Rainsford. Michael Hugh Torsch also doubles up on roles, directing and appearing onstage as the villainous Count Zaroff, and Iris Page fills out the principal cast as Eve Trowbridge, the presumptive love interest. The talents of Robb Goetzke, Brian Grossman and Jacob Mobley back them up while Currant Somers provides live music and sound, and all this is done to hilarious effect.
It's the hilarity that really sells this show. It's hard to put something on after it's been spoofed so much that it's practically a running gag in our collective consciousness. Playing it straight isn't likely to resonate much, and even lampshading it can come off as tired and unoriginal. (See above, re: Gilligan's Island.) The new version running at the Bedlam right now isn't tired, though. Instead, it's one of those rare 'Galaxy Quest' style parodies - an affectionate deconstruction - that doesn't abandon its reverence for the source.
While this show is, at its core, a solid hour of sophisticated rake stepping, it doesn't pretend not to be a think piece. Connell's original message - that gunning down unwitting targets from a safe distance is more rightly called 'murder' than 'sport' - is still there, but Hamburger's redux gives it the Douglas Adams treatment: You know where he stands because he's just made his point via some ludicrous bit that you never saw coming.
The show is full of those, along with its share of predictable gags and callbacks, too. They're all blended together, skillfully executed via the cast's shared sense of comedic timing and their proficiency with physical comedy.
More notable, and more central to this retelling's success, is its unapologetic upending of traditional gender and genre conventions. The second act takes the viewer through a subtle perspective shift and reveals that Rainsford is just a dull, self-centered coward, dangerously lacking in survival instinct. In fact, there are really only two things keeping him alive: First, Count Zaroff is just as inept. Second, Eve Trowbridge is not.
The unexpected heroine comes off as the type who could easily outwit Zaroff on her own, if she weren't burdened by a bumbling Rainsford who bungles her every attempt to survive, and you almost start to wonder why she doesn't just toss the two inept nemeses down a trou de loup and get on with getting away on her own. (She doesn't because she's one of the good guys, and good guys in comedies don't do that. There are rules.)
This Most Dangerous Game is a wryly genre-savvy tale that rebels when it can and, when it can't, just subtly winks through the fourth wall instead. It's fun, light fare sprinkled with some gallows humor. Its manic energy is infectious, and the post-applause murmur among the crowd that packed the Bedlam on opening night was that of an audience who got far more out of it than they were expecting.
Hamburger's script, Torsch's stage direction and all the players' collective talents have produced a polished comedy worthy of a larger venue with a higher ticket price. I was disappointed that it wasn't longer (a complaint I'm pretty sure I've never made about a play before) but maybe that's part of its charm. If the goal of a good entertainer is to leave them wanting more, then these guys are pretty great.
Their run is pretty short, too. They're wrapping up after just three more nights, so see the show this week or you won't get to see it at all.
The Most Dangerous Game
With: Joey Hamburger, Iris Page, Michael Hugh Torsch, Robb Goetzke, Brian Grossman, Jacob Mobley, Currant Somers
When: Jan 15th, 16th & 17th at 8 p.m.
Where: Bedlam Lowertown, 213 East Fourth Street, St. Paul.
Tickets: $8-$10. www.bedlamtheatre.org
[Photo: Rob Callahan]