Wally MacKinnon (top), Matt Lacas, Henricus Gielis and Rachel Lloyd star in Ben Hur, by Patrick Barlow, at Festival Antigonish’s Bauer Theatre to August 24.
Ben Hur is a madcap comedy about four actors trying to stage the epic tale of Ben=Hur with all its grandiose chariot, Coliseum and galley ship scenes.
Now playing at Festival Antigonish, the two-and-a-half-hour show is joyful, light entertainment full of belly laughs with an excellent cast and a speed-of-light pace.
Henricus Gielis plays the enthusiastic showman Daniel Veil, taking on the feat of realizing the humungous classic with his Daniel Veil Theatre Collective. Meanwhile a love triangle simmers amongst the actors.
British playwright Patrick Barlow’s script is an hysterical tossed salad of corny jokes, mangled language, wordplay and tongue twisters.
Veil and his amateur actors race to keep up with the story in rapid scene and costume changes with a slew of comical errors and some brilliant stagecraft hacks.
Wally MacKinnon is wonderfully expressive and articulate in multiple roles, particularly as Ben-Hur’s alarmed mother and Lew Wallace, the American author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880 and the basis for the famous 1959 film.
Rachel Lloyd is amazing in her highly kinetic performances as Ben-Hur’s sister, the serving girl Esther who is in love with Ben-Hur and many other characters including a whirling dervish of a dancing girl.
Gielis as Veil anchors himself in the role of Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish nobleman forced by fate into slavery. He vociferously seeks vengeance on his childhood friend Messala, who became a Roman commanding officer.
At the same time Jesus is starting to wander around Galilee spreading his message of love and compassion. He gives Ben-Hur water as he is being beaten and starved.
Matt Lacas plays Jesus in a lovely, flower-child way, in great contrast to his angry, bold impersonation of Messala whose red, plumed helmet gets caughts as he tries to exit through a stage door.
That director Andrea Boyd can move all her players at such breakneck speed with some ingenious stagecraft is an amazing feat.
She is aided by a team of set and lighting designer Ian Pygott, stage manager Ingrid Risk, fight director Karen Bassett, costume designer Elizbeth Perry, props head BaoLinh La and choreographer Veronique MacKenzie, who injects highland dance into the hilarious Roman dance scene. Boyd and Pygott are also the sound designers.
Playwright Barlow used a similar narrative device of a handful of actors staging a large-cast classic in his hit, The 39 Steps. Ben Hur is not as strong as The 39 Steps. It has a marvellous first act but stalls in the second due to over-writing in one case and over-cooking the chariot race — hilarious at first in its mix of live and filmed action.
However, this production fully merits the standing ovation it got when I saw it. Ben Hur runs to Aug. 24 in repertory with the dark comedy The Goodnight Bird, by Colleen Murphy, directed by Boyd and starring Gielis, MacKinnon and Mary-Colin Chisholm, to Aug. 23, and Honky Tonk Blue, by Laura Teasdale, a musical imagining a meeting between Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, with Ralph Steiner and Laura Teasdale, to August 24.
Tickets are available online (https://tickets.festivalantigonish.com), by calling 902-867-3333 or at the Bauer Theatre box office Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information go online (www.festivalantigonish.com).