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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Jeff Anderson (left) and Mark Hagen star in "The Creature from the Black, Black Lagoon."
Jeff Anderson (left) and Mark Hagen star in "The Creature from the Black, Black Lagoon."

Off The Wall's "Creature" never climbs out of the black, black lagoon

There’s this thing about cheap laughs.

They can be very funny at first. But sometimes, after a while, cheap laughs become just cheap. And some of that is what bedevils "The Creature From the Black, Black Lagoon," the Christmas show at Dale Gutzman’s Off The Wall Theatre.

Make no mistake about it: This is a funny play, written and directed by Gutzman, and based on the classic 1954 horror movie. There is very little horror here, but there are a lot of sexual jokes, some songs, some very funny visuals and an audience that certainly seemed to enjoy every moment.

I enjoyed it, too. But after a while, I found myself almost worn out from waiting for the jokes and from knowing what the jokes were going to be.

When a drag queen looks at the crotch of the monster who loves her and swoons, it’s not the least bit surprising. When a slovenly and lecherous boat captain sets his sights on the long-legged jungle girl and offers her safety in the meat locker, it’s not a surprise.

To me, the thing I’ve always thought the highest – and funniest – form of comedy is both funny and unexpected. Startle me, make me laugh and I’m a happy boy.

The production certainly has its moments, and most of them revolve around Mark Hagen who plays Kay Laverne, the love object of the creature and the woman who is in love with her professional partner.

Hagen is astoundingly funny, and Gutzman wisely understands that to give her/him/whatever free reign is guaranteed laughs. Let the spotlight shine on Hagen, and he knows full what to do with it.

Early in the play, Hagen – dressed in a stunning one piece bathing suit complete with multicolored cap – drops into the water. We see her arms, legs, head, butt and hands emerge with various items from the deep black sea all while the rest of the crew on this motley ship watch. It’s an absolute riot of a scene.

And that is at least a part of the problem with this show. Hagen is so funny and so good at the glance – the bat of an eyelash and the lust of a horny schoolgirl – that the rest of the people on the stage pale by comparison.

Lawrence Lukasavage plays the boat captain for all it’s worth, giving us the absolute nightmare of a dirty old man with great skill. But the rest of this cast either can’t or aren’t supposed to break out of the cardboard cutouts that have been created for them.

One-dimensional hardly begins to describe the other characters, as well as the other actors. It’s almost like "hey dull; meet drab," and off they go with their lines memorized but no heart in what they do.

At some point, to generate real humor, we have to care about the people on stage. That’s even true in a parody like this. Gender-bending jokes, double and triple entendres, and specific sexual jokes and situations are hardly enough to hold us for almost two hours.

The other problem facing this production is that the setup for each joke seems to take an increasingly long time. Early in the play, it’s easy to wait for the joke. As the evening wears on, however, wading through the setup exhausts you even before you get to the punch line.

When "The Creature from the Black, Black Lagoon" was over, I felt like I had been watching someone try to stuff six pounds of Christmas cookies in a box made for one pound. This is a play that needed a good editor or dramaturg to make some cuts, to improve timing and to keep the laughs coming.

Gutzman has built an enviable reputation for staging edgy and interesting plays at Off The Wall. He’s a master storyteller and eager to take a gamble. He rolled the dice on this one, but I walked away from the table without any chips left.  

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