Tabloid Rabbitry

Blank verse: it's not just for Shakespeare classes anymore. That, at any rate, is the statement made by Todd Carlstrom's wickedly inventive new comedy Bunnies: Part I, presented by breedingground productions at its Spring Fever Festival. With more than a wink toward that most famous of theatrical versifiers, Carlstrom has worked up a rollicking ramble of a play that is at once unashamedly archaic and deliciously contemporary. Oh, and one more thing: it also features simulated bunny sex. The plot of Bunnies runs like something snatched from the dubious headlines of the Weekly World News, yet it's all based on historical (but still dubious) events that supposedly took place in England in 1726. Mary Toft (Laura Esposito) is a pregnant peasant woman who suddenly starts giving birth to deceased rabbits. Her bizarre births are verified by a small-town midwife named John Howard (Richard Bubbico), who, while skeptical at first, soon spreads Mary's story to an ever-growing number of onlookers and learned experts. The scandal gets out of hand and eventually reaches the ears of the King, whose curiosity about the "Preternatural Bunny Births" (P.B.B.'s) leads to fresh complications for everyone concerned.

That ridiculous 18th-century tabloid scandal of a story is, however, only the tip of the carrot in this quirky and high-spirited production. Director Tomi Tsunoda and her cast have done a phenomenal job in taking the already wild script and cramming it full of all manner of oddball humor. The resulting performance resembles a Shakespearean blank verse comedy invaded by a downtown sketch-comedy troupe that's been watching too many Monty Python reruns.

There seems to be no end to Tsunoda's inventiveness in propelling Bunnies along from one laugh to the next. Even the birthing scenes, which might otherwise have tread dangerously close to reality, become truly bizarre, as Mary's rabbity offspring are represented by small, reddish balls that shoot like projectiles out from between her legs. Anachronisms of all kinds abound in Tsunoda's version of the 18th century and provide an atmosphere of creative irreverence to the show. Other highlights include a ranting expert on unnatural births (Rory Sheridan) who berates the audience about the use of the word "vagina"; an audience with King George (Jay Gaussoin), who speaks in an unintelligible faux-German dialect while wolfing down handfuls of Swedish Fish; and a no holds barred showdown between two "personified abstract concepts." You get the picture.

What makes these moments of comic madness really shine is that they seem to emerge naturally from the plot (or about as naturally as anything that involves humans giving birth to rabbits can be). Carlstrom has chosen to write in a form that could hardly be more archaic, but his play about a 300-year-old scandal comes off like a play about a piece of juicy 21st-century gossip. The language and verse flow smoothly for the most part (a tribute to writer and cast), and the self-conscious theatricality of writing in an outdated style turns out to be well suited to the theatricality of the tabloid-pages subject. Writing in verse could easily have doomed this play to boredom, but instead it makes it funnier.

There are certainly some hiccups in the course of Bunnies, but that may be expected with a new work. The play takes a while to get going, as the audience has to get used to the language and conceit of the whole thing, and it's not until about a third of the way in that everything's firing on all cylinders. The acting also shows some rough spots between laughs, and there are lapses in concentration until the next bit gets going. More important, there are several times when the madcap antics of the production mask the play's underlying ideas a little too much. It's a ton of fun, but there are several good ideas and clever digs at contemporary scandals that get lost in the shuffle. When all is said and done, there is more depth to Bunnies than is necessarily on display in Tsunoda's production.

That said, Bunnies is a hoot and definitely not to be missed if you're a fan of zany humor, classic English plays, or, better yet, both. Carlstrom's highly unusual ideas seemingly could not have fallen into better hands than Tsunoda's, as the production and script play well into each other's strengths. A few new-play jitters aside, this irreverent romp is proof enough that you don't have to be Shakespeare to write a blank verse comedy. Bring your carrots and give this one a try: you may just find a new appreciation for the delightfully wicked world of tabloid scandal, which seems to have changed very little in 300 years.

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