If ever there were a play more suited to North Hollywood’s Avery Schreiber Theatre than Broadway’s Helen Hayes (where it flopped back in 1999), that play is Larry Coen & David Crane’s Epic Proportions, an entertaining small-scale spoof of those cheesy Biblical epics that were once part of Hollywood’s bread and butter. (Or should that be dates and hummus?)

 Dagney Kerr stars as Louise Goldman, a wide-eyed young thing currently toiling as assistant director on Exeunt Omnes, the latest 1930s D.W. DeWitt blockbuster, whose title she informs us translates as “Everybody Outta Here.” More specifically, Louise is in charge of supervising the film’s “atmosphere personnel,” in other words the movie’s “cast of thousands,” in other words, the epic’s 3,400 extras, all of whose names she promises us to learn as fast as she can.

Exeunt Omnes has lured 20something Benny (Michael Miranda) to its shooting location deep in the Arizona desert in hopes of a movie stardom he’s sure will be his. After all, what are six months of acting lessons for if not to guarantee Hollywood success?

Meanwhile, Benny’s handsomer, more dashing brother Phil (Anthony Marquez) has followed his sibling out to Nowhere, Arizona to bring Benny to his senses (and back to the family homestead). Unfortunately, director DeWitt’s insistence on a closed set means that there will be no busses out of the desert till the final scene has been shot.

Given the paucity of options, Phil decides to stick around, and is soon assigned to one of four groups of extras (the ones who get to be part of feasts and parades), while Benny gets assigned to another (the hapless 850 who are doomed to suffer all ten of the plagues).

 Before long, a malfunctioning Burning Bush has brought about Phil’s promotion from lowly extra to Exeunt Omnes’ director, his experience as a high school drum major having already proven useful to Louise in keeping the four groups of extras in line.

Also, before long, both brothers have fallen for Louise.

 Epic Proportions is the latest production of Neo Ensemble Theatre, whose previous effort Who Lives? scored five Ovation nominations. While Epic Proportions is unlikely to replicate that kind of critical acclaim, it proves a funny if minor comedic treat, and one entirely in line with the company’s goal: “the celebration of humor within the human condition.”

Joe Ochman directs Epic Proportions in the vein of those old Carol Burnett movie-spoofing skits (albeit at 85 or so minutes running about 10 times longer), and if the resulting production remains a bit rough around the edges, so too did actor Avery Schreiber, at least as compared to Broadway legend Helen Hayes.

 Production values are fairly bare bones, as has been the case in previously reviewed Avery Schreiber productions, though in this case at least, Michael Hoffman’s platforms-and-painted-backdrop set fits Epic Proportions’ spoofy nature quite neatly. (Still, I can’t help wonder if Hoffman read the script, since the pyramids he’s painted on the upstage walls have, according to writers Coen and Crane, not yet been built at the time of the action.)

With her particular brand of cute and quirky, Kerr is a nonstop delight as Louise, and never more so than when coaching the movie’s four groups of extras, each of whom must express a different emotion, from terror to disbelieve to “sardonic amusement.” Miranda gets many laughs too as Benny, who as Cleopatra’s servant in one of the play’s funniest sequences keeps getting more and more beaten up as the scene get shot and reshot in take after take. Marquez plays Phil considerably straighter, though tongue remains firmly and aptly in cheek.

 Among supporting players, Matt Crabtree (as Conspirator #1, Jack, Egyptian # 3, Queen’s Attendant, Brady, and Gladiator #1) and Marina Palmier (as Conspirator #3, Egyptian Dancing Girl, Queen, and Cochette) are the hands-down standouts, each creating one droll, distinct character after another, though Karim Léon (as Octavium, Slavemaster, Roman General, Egyptian #1, Guard #2, Cochette’s Assistant, Steve J. Palmer (as Conspirator #2, Shel, Voice Of Carl, Egyptian #2, Guard #1, Executioner, and Gladiator #2) each have their amusing moments as well, as does David St. James as the foreign-accented D.W. Griffith, sorry C.B. DeMille, oops make that D.W. DeWitt.

Assorted sight gags, props, and bits of physical comedy provide Epic Proportions with some of its funniest moments, from the ten plagues (though no one associated with the movie seems to know the meaning of “pestilence”) to a played-for-comedy sword fight to the various mishaps that befall poor Benny.

Hoffman’s lighting is basic (par for the course at the Schreiber) though it does the job. Janet Hoskins’ sound design not only sets the scene with an appropriately Biblical soundtrack (Miklós Rózsa? Elmer Bernstein? Alfred Newman?) but makes us almost believe in those 3,400 extras. A low-budget but highly imaginative costume design by Tina Zarro takes us back and forth between “Biblical times” and the 1930s.

Epic Proportions is co-produced by Arilyn Carpenter, St. James, and Lynn Phillip Seibel. Louis Lake is stage manager.

While nowhere near the kind of polished, elegantly-designed productions you’re likely to see at one of NoHo’s posher intimate theaters, Epic Proportions nonetheless succeeds in keeping its audience entertained and amused, and while hardly epic in proportions, theatergoers could certainly do worse than an hour and a half in the Arizona desert.

Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 9, 2012

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