Lifeline Theatre. By Chris Hainsworth. Directed by Kevin Theis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
From the moment Monstrous Regiment begins, with an army recruiter’s vaudevillian routine calling the brave sons of Borogravia to join against the foul Slovenian and Ankh-Morporkian invaders (complete with helpful flags, for the more dim-witted recruits) while Polly Perks (Sarah Price) cuts her hair and stuffs her trousers to become Oliver, it’s clear that Lifeline Theatre understands Terry Pratchett.
The celebrated author is one of the last masters of satire, and Monstrous Regiment is one of his finest works. While a lot of satire today devolves into snark, Pratchett’s writing is earnest, enthusiastic, and celebrates the bravely idiotic spirit of humanity. Though Discworld is full of dwarves, dragons and other fantasy trappings, it’s less sword-and-sworcery and more the realities of modern life as experienced by a strange and comical universe. Lifeline’s adaptation, as with its opening scene, visually captures the absurd zeal with which Pratchett’s societies perform their beliefs as well as the hapless dignity of his heroines.
Borogravia is a mad little country that’s been at war with just about everyone, and Polly Perks never cared until her brother Paul went missing in the army. To find him, she disguises herself as a boy and joins a misfit group of recruits led by the sergeant's sergeant, the infamous Jackrum (Christopher M. Walsh). Her comrades include a troll, a religious fanatic, runaways, a vampire and an Igor, but they have one thing in common: They’re all secretly women.
Monstrous Regiment’s greatest achievement is the speed with which it immerses you in its universe. The ensemble is confident in its project, and each actor changes their manner depending on who they’re speaking to—so the vampire Maledict (Michaela Petro) is never addressed as if she’s not sporting fangs, and everyone talks a little softer to the pious, unhinged Wazzer (Melissa Engle). Combined with spectacular costumes and spot-on physical comedy, it’s immediately understandable and entertaining.
This is a very literal, page-to-stage adaptation, which works just fine because the source dialogue is hilarious. The addition of great visual gags makes it even funnier. That said, the literalness doesn’t always work in its favor. A well-paced book becomes rushed in a theater. It’s not that moments aren’t given their due time; rather Monstrous Regiment begins to be one event after another after another. Even as a hardcore Pratchett fan, I wish Chris Hainsworth had done more adapting and taken more liberties with the text. It unquestionably is a book read aloud, even to those who don’t know the source, and doesn’t quite achieve the holistic feeling of a stage play. The cast acts to the dialogue, rather than bending the delivery to their character, much like you see with a lot of Shakespeare productions.
The results are still good, but there’s a sense they could achieve more, and the ensemble is rarely subtle. The exception is Walsh as Sergeant Jackrum, who is so much more than the “Sarge” stereotype. He is simultaneously a ruthless killer, a beleaguered old soldier and a caring leader; not an easy character, but Walsh rises to the occasion in the most natural performance of the show, one that gives it real soul.
If imperfect and perhaps too reverent of its source material, Monstrous Regiment is still a comedy with top-notch production values that keep the audience laughing, and is one of the more original stories you can see in a theatre. I’m thrilled Lifeline chose to tackle it, and with such gusto. I’d simply love to see the creators break from Pratchett’s pages even more to make their adaptation a great work in its own right, because the talent and passion are there.