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Set in Ancient Greece, a street clown Cockian is hired by a Roman Commander to impersonate an imprisoned Christian leader in order to learn the group's secrets, but the clown begins to take ... Read allSet in Ancient Greece, a street clown Cockian is hired by a Roman Commander to impersonate an imprisoned Christian leader in order to learn the group's secrets, but the clown begins to take his role to heart.Set in Ancient Greece, a street clown Cockian is hired by a Roman Commander to impersonate an imprisoned Christian leader in order to learn the group's secrets, but the clown begins to take his role to heart.
This is a very low-budget production of Schmidt's and Jones's 'Philemon', which I expected to be a dramatisation of the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon. It turns out to be wholly unrelated to that story. (The myth is pre-Christian and has fantasy elements; this story takes place in New Testament times and has no supernatural events.) IMDb's synopsis is accurate. Much of this story takes place outdoors in Antioch, but the entire musical is shot on an indoor soundstage. Everything is sterile and antiseptic, and this calls attention to the stagebound origins of this story.
One trait which I dislike about dramas set in ancient times is that they nearly always depict the society of that time as far cleaner and healthier than it actually was. In 'Philemon', we get an excellent song about the streets of Antioch and how filthy they are. We're never actually told precisely what sort of filth begrimes Antioch, but ... well, oxen and cattle are probably somewhere just offstage. Annoyingly, this production undercuts the realism of that song by offering clean sets, neat costumes with machine-made stitching, and well-fed actors with excellent orthodontia.
The libretto is ever so slightly daring about sexual matters and other 'dirty' subjects. We see travelling performer Cockian and his wife/co-star Kiki performing a comedy routine in which he wields a sausage and she keeps taking slices out of it, while Cockian (the superb Dick Latessa) reacts as if Kiki were carving up an intimate portion of his anatomy. This scene is handled about as boldly as American television would tolerate for 1976: it even acknowledges that the sausage is a phallic symbol without getting more explicit.
Sadly, 'Philemon' is very much a minor work in the Jones/Schmidt canon. Their musicals tend to feature at least one hauntingly beautiful ballad per score, whether it's "Try to Remember", "My Cup Runneth Over with Love" or "Everything Beautiful Happens at Night". I found the songs in "Philemon" to be pleasantly enjoyable, but no more than that. I did enjoy Latessa's big number, scored for piano and clapsticks, in which Cockian wonders whether he is fated to spend his life merely as a professional buffoon or whether he can become something greater ... while behind him Roman soldiers sing a counter-melody: "Bravo, Cockian. Ha ha, Cockian."
I give Jones and Schmidt extra credit for choosing such unusual subject matter, and I'll credit director Norman Lloyd for his efforts to depict early Christian Antioch with some accuracy despite a low budget. Even so, I can't rate this one better than 6 out of 10.
- F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
- Aug 2, 2008