What It Is
Given just a one-line description of Recent Cutbacks’ “Fly, You Fools!”, currently extended through July at The People’s Improv Theater, it feels like a bit of a joke: a nearly shot-for-shot parody of The Fellowship of the Ring starring just three actors and a Foley sound artist, sending up the first installment of Peter Jackson’s historic The Lord of The Rings trilogy in about an hour-and-a-half.
And after all, it’s being produced at one of the preeminent comedy centers in NYC, which until recently hasn’t necessarily been known as a breeding ground for traditional theater. But this show, along with some of the other recent offerings at The PIT, should challenge that assumption pretty directly.
Running at The PIT through July, “Fly, You Fools!” will also include limited run / double-feature presentations of Recent Cutbacks’ original production, “Hold On To Your Butts” on 6/28 & 7/12.
Why It’s Good
There’s certainly a lot to love about this production. Having seen Recent Cutbacks previous hit, “Hold On To Your Butts” (HOTYB), which defined this niche genre of live filmic parody with a two-man (plus Foley artist) recreation of Jurassic Park, I knew more or less what to expect: virtuosic physical theater and delightful live sound design in a free-wheeling low-fi theatrical nostalgia bomb. HOTYB was repeatedly extended at The PIT by popular demand, and was also crafted under the careful direction of Kristin McCarthy Parker, whose sense of fun and attention to detail is evident throughout her work.
Also returning to “Fly, You Fools!” are Nick Abeel and Kyle Schaefer, two of the original masterminds of Recent Cutbacks’ unique style. Joining them is Matt Zambrano to round out the epic trilogy of actors, and multitalented Foley artist Blair Busbee. The four performers are in almost constant motion, faithfully recreating the moments — and more importantly, the feelings — from the film that have become iconic.
In nearly every way, “Fly, You Fools!” feels like an ambitious step up for the Recent Cutbacks crew. Jurassic Park was a blockbuster, but The Fellowship of the Ring is the very definition of epic. Not content to rest on the laurels of a proven formula, “Fly, You Fools!” has iterated on and refined the best ideas from HOTYB, and introduced some delightful new tricks to keep the audience engaged.
The ring of lightly used props creates a ritual space on stage, which is extremely appropriate for this show. Beyond evoking the all-important One Ring of Power, it establishes an arcane arena for conjuring the story and action, and the performers are all on board with the magic of this production.
The three actors establish role-specific gestures to help juggle the large cast of characters, subtly teach a consistent cinematic vocabulary that guides the audience through a whirlwind of scenes, and effortlessly dance amongst tropes and references without feeling weighed down by their meme-dom. Busbee’s live Foley sound effects (mixed with Kelsey Didion’s arrangements) are similarly exceptional and intricate, and as Didion did in HOTYB, she feels like a fully equal presence that deserves her place on the stage, even before the lines become playfully blurred.
To top it all off, they treat us to a shadow puppet interlude for a crucial part of the story, and it’s wildly inventive and very well-integrated. It would be a disservice to say any more for fear of spoiling the best bits, but suffice it to say, it’s a definite highlight and underscores how “Fly, You Fools!” is an evolution in their nebulous and playful style.
Though the Recent Cutbacks model is solidly “parody”, the baked-in love and respect for the source material is palpable in every moment. These artists, from the four performers on stage, to the rock-solid production team behind the scenes, have legitimately contributed to the artistic legacy surrounding J.R.R. Tolkein’s legends.
It is perhaps appropriate that the first review for Theater Is Good should be so good, because it gives special purpose to this last section. After all, for what it is, “Fly, You Fools!” is very nearly perfect.
But there’s the rub — “for what it is.” That isn’t to dismiss the fine work by the artists involved, or to denigrate their chosen form. In fact, they are innovators in a theatrical style that highlights the potential for sheer joy that theater has over its cinematic cousin. However, like the One Ring itself, that which brings great power has also the power to destroy.
Any derivative work depends to some degree upon the audience’s relationship to the source material. On the one hand, Recent Cutbacks has done a marvelous job of selecting works that have so entered the pop cultural consciousness that whether or not you’ve seen the movies recently, you’re likely to enjoy it and remember the best bits.
But on the other hand, if you’ve never seen the source material, or have a distaste for these blockbusters, you might not find yourself riding the waves of laughter and crashing in the afterglow surf of theatrical joy (as I was). The creative effort on display in “Fly, You Fools!” is incredible, original, and remarkably potent — but whether it stands on its own is questionable.
The very medium of this work is the audience’s own nostalgia, and while to their credit Recent Cutbacks are master painters in that medium, if your mind and heart is an empty palette, they don’t have much to work with. This also makes them more susceptible to the will, mood, and size of the crowd. Our nostalgia trip is often triggered by our audience-mates’ remembrances and emotions, even more so than in the usually internal experiences of traditional drama.
And despite being produced at an improv theater, “Fly, You Fools!” is about as polished and choreographed as it gets. The thorough refinement of this production begs to have its craftsmanship taken seriously, and momentary lapses in the tight swirling configurations, or slight disparity between performers in physical or vocal virtuosity, become more evident and less forgivable than they otherwise would be in low-fi phantasmagoria.
All that said: see this show. Bring some friends and you’ll have a blast. Bring some friends who are The Lord of the Rings fans and you’ll share an absolutely transcendent theatrical experience.
– C. F.