Sometimes the world makes it pretty hard to be yourself - even if you're not, say, a wacky German monarch or a gay teen in 1940s Texas. But if you do happen to be Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, James Avery of Dainsville, or anyone else with a hankering for beauty and the rashness to act on impulse, life can be difficult indeed.
Such is the setup of Paul Rudnick's Valhalla, presented by StageQ on the smaller of the Bartell Theatre's two stages, the Evjue Theatre. Rudnick cuts between the misadventures of Ludwig, the 19th-century royal with a passion for Richard Wagner's operas, and James, a small-town young man with a passion for handsome, athletically built Henry Lee.
Rudnick's conceit of jumping back and forth between two times and places - and from a historical figure to a fictional one - can seem a little forced at times. Thankfully, a brisk, funny script keeps the audience engaged; Valhalla provides more entertainment than heavy-handed "messages."
Like most of the six-person cast, Sean Langenecker handles multiple roles, from straitlaced Henry Lee at various ages to German wrestling instructor Helmut to a Wagnerian opera character. Langenecker throws himself fully into each role, creating distinct personas for each. Most funny is Helmut, who exhorts the decidedly non-athletic Ludwig to grab him in a wrestling hold, comically wiggling his whole body like an excited dog.
Another standout is Kristin Forde, who handles five roles, the most memorable of which is Sophie, the hunchbacked potential mate to Ludwig. Though very pretty herself, she imbues the part with a certain plain-girl, matter-of-fact humor (think Janeane Garofalo-as-19th-century-blueblood).
Langenecker and Forde certainly hold their own with the two central characters, James and Ludwig, played by Andy Osen and Erik Andrus Weinke, respectively. Osen's James is impish yet somewhat subdued; Osen could approach the role a little more forcefully without overdoing it. As Ludwig, Weinke goes full-bore, sometimes getting a little shrill, but that's part of the point. Ludwig exasperated those around him with his childlike willfulness.
With its naughty, rollicking humor, the first half of the play moves more quickly. The second half tries a little too hard to poignantly wrap up various threads in the story. But that's a reflection on Rudnick's script, not this cast or Tara Ayres' direction. Playing to a packed house on a recent Saturday night, the show earned plenty of laughs while dealing with a few sound glitches. All told, it's a worthwhile evening of theater done in the accessible comic style one would expect from the writer of Jeffrey and In & Out.