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Grail Birds 

A satirical Arthurian musical is imprisoned by creative chaos.

Perren Hedderson fires blanks as Percival.
  • Perren Hedderson fires blanks as Percival.
Checks and balances. Remember them? Used to be, our protection against a renegade federal administration was the restraint imposed by an involved investigative media and a vibrant, engaged opposition party. But since 9-11, our fourth estate has taken the fifth, and the Democrats have only recently rediscovered small fragments of their spinal cord. So it falls to artists -- theater groups and playwrights among them -- to confront an administration referred to recently as "this grinning pestilence of a government in Washington."

With that in mind, James Levin and Linda Eisenstein have written and scored Discordia, a musical comedy now at Cleveland Public Theatre, which views the current U.S. of A. landscape through the prism of the King Arthur legend and the quest for the Holy Grail. Eisenstein and Levin, both remarkably accomplished, unfortunately fall short, since the music is only fitfully engaging and the comedy is far too obvious -- when it isn't dizzyingly obtuse.

In "the near future," a warmongering King Arthur (given a beefy, robust turn by G.A. Taggett) rules over a land where consumerism is sacred, the poor are mocked, and not wearing a flag on your lapel is a felony. The usually smiling Art is surrounded by three of his primo knights, who are double-cast as leather-clad cops treading, burlesque Gestapo-style, on the nonexistent rights of the hapless citizenry. Into this mix is thrown our hero, the home-schooled and clueless Percival, who only wants to be a knight of the Round Table, so he can serve his king and do right for the world. To that end, he is sent off to find the Holy Grail by Morgan Le Fay (played and sung with spirit by Alison Hernan), an omnipresent changeling who tweaks the authorities as she cheers on her knight-errant. All these proceedings are reported on by an Eyewitness News talking head (sharply sketched by Jill Levin), whose face continually appears on video monitors.

This premise has great potential for trenchant parody and some deft skewering of current governmental goons. And indeed, there are moments when the production almost clears the launchpad, as when one bellicose aide ominously threatens, in true Rumsfeld-speak, to "deliver some democracy to their hamlet." But these promising moments are eventually overwhelmed by an unfocused production that is overwritten, overchoreographed, and woefully underacted in certain key roles. The book for the show, which was workshopped last year at CPT, has the feel of a script-by-committee, in which no cute ideas (no matter how irrelevant) were jettisoned for the good of the whole. Thus, the narrative skitters haphazardly among tender love scenes, a Grail Mall complete with Percival action figures, mystics purveying weapons of mass destruction, and SNL-type skits (frustrated Percival visits a Grail-Seekers Anonymous group). Adding to the disconnect are the songs, composed by Eisenstein with lyrics -- by both authors -- that are often either meanderingly non-melodic (like lame Les Miz) or sabotaged by determinedly banal wordplay ("He's the kind of guy/Who's kind of kind").

All of this might have been pulled together by a dynamic and inventive cast, but aside from the aforementioned performers, there are major talent gaps in this CPT ensemble. That faint sucking sound you've been hearing may be due to the almost perfect vacuum created at the center of the play by Perren Hedderson as Percival. Lacking both the charm and wit required to enliven his character's naive innocence, Hedderson reveals almost no facial expressions -- appearing as if he had recently fallen face-first in a bowl of Botox. His singing voice is pleasant in the fainter volumes, but he can't belt or rock, which a few of his songs require. His love interest, Allison, is played by Amiee Collier with less energy and insight than you'd expect at a cold reading, although she sings a bit better. Some of the smaller roles are unmitigated disasters. Jim Green as Sir Malvern reels off the worst Bob Dylan impression ever heard outside the privacy of a shower stall. And if anyone ever discovers what play Dwight Fleming is acting in, as the egregiously wild-eyed and barely intelligible Merlin, please forward that information to director Raymond Bobgan.

For his part, Bobgan has a number of amusing ideas -- such as giving the trio of knights Three Stooges shtick to do -- but they're often executed so poorly that the humor is suffocated. Alas, the strikingly simple set by Trad A. Burns, a capable orchestra directed by Michael D. Flohr, and some clever costumes by Inda Blatch-Geib aren't enough to rescue this well-intentioned production. But as always, Cleveland Public Theatre is out there taking chances. And for that alone, they deserve a standing ovation. And an audience.

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