Apr 5, 2007

Theater Review: "The Defenders"

Ostensibly a parody of The Avengers and the many other "-ers" of Sixties spy TV, Brian Frette’s "The Defenders" falls wildly short of the mark. Things started off promising enough, with a decent (if rather uninspired) logo on the program and an impressive, expressionist set. The floor was a black and white chessboard, like in the American Avengers title sequence, and the walls and doors towered above it at crooked angles like something out of a classic, surreal Avengers episode like "The House That Jack Built" or "The Joker."

"Nicely done," I thought. According to the program, the decidedly un-Steedish Steedly hero was named "St. John-Smythe," Again I smiled, recollecting that that was Roger Moore’s alias in A View To A Kill when he was undercover with Patrick Macnee’s Sir Godfrey Tibbett. Clearly, the writer knew his spies. The play opened with a fairly clever montage of imaginative assassinations. So far, so good. Furthermore, the show’s many Asian characters were all played by white actors–a very funny, subtle nod to the dearth of actual Asian actors (Burt Kwouk not withstanding) on Sixties British TV... or so I thought.

As the storyline got underway and the atrocious accents began in earnest, I started to rethink my original suppositions. It seemed more and more like the playwright had seen just a few episodes of The Avengers a while ago, and then mostly ignored them while writing his play. I realized I must have been giving him too much credit for all those little details. Surely they were coincidences! And the white actors? Not a nod, I’m afraid; just a similar lack of access to actual Asians. A gay Steed-alike and an overweight Mrs. Peel-alike were good ideas, but they failed to pay off in jokes or story, and seemed instead designed to give the writer/director/star a chance to prance around in extremely, unnecessarily tight tights and cast his best friend as the leading lady, Russian agent Carrington Lovegrove (Christine Deaver).

Rather than play with Steed’s iconic, bowler-hatted Edwardian English gentleman image, Frette opted for a kabuki and kimono wardrobe for his hero. The kabuki make-up was both poorly conceived and poorly executed, the latter compounding the former. For most of the play St. John-Smythe went around with a vaguely powdery face, and whatever the unclear intention, it only appeared unprofessional and served to distract. The play’s limited wit was more targeted at foibles of modern life, like cell phones going off in theatres, than at the broad, implied target of Sixties cult TV.

Still, a few things did work. Deaver has an excellent voice which was put to good use when Lovegrove went undercover at a nightclub, and the choreography was fairly impressive. In addition to a well-executed tango sequence, all of the fights were staged with a mixture of ballet, modern dance and occasional martial arts moves. Some of the performers were quite adept at this, and pulled off dangerous-looking flips and leaps. These fights were entertaining at first, but soon outstayed their welcome, some lasting for what seemed as long as ten minutes.

An early scene in which St. John-Smythe and Lovegrove trade rapid verbal barbs while competing in various, increasingly silly games successfully recalled the Steed/Peel banter (at least until Deaver broke a cup–and broke character). The real highlight of the play, though, was actor Joe Seely as Birdie, the crippled aid to a scene-stealing, Mother-like male spy boss named Auntie... who happens to be a puppet, controlled by Seely. Auntie and Birdie were one of the few touches that really did manage to fully capture the unique quirkiness of The Avengers. Seely not only managed the best British accent in the play, but pulled off some impressive bits of physical comedy when his handicapped character gained the shaky ability to walk.

Unfortunately, even this enjoyable performance is not enough to recommend "The Defenders," I’m afraid. If it ever comes to your area (I think it’s due in San Francisco next), you’re better off saving your money and your time. "The Defenders" fails both as a piece of theater and as a spy send-up.

A Zoo District Production, reviewed at "[Inside] the Ford" Theater in Los Angeles on March 23, 2007

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