Washington Ensemble Theatre’s final production in its Little Theatre Capitol Hill space is the world premiere of The Hunchback of Seville, a farce with the attention span of sketch comedy (and a hit-to-miss joke ratio to match). The specter of Monty Python is present in Charise Castro Smith’s play, but the comic sensibility feels even more akin to Love and Death-style Woody Allen in its wry historical revisionism.
Perhaps that’s far too generous of an assessment for a play that mostly feels like a couple jokes facsimiled over and over to steeply decreasing returns, but it’s also a testament to the elastic comic talents on display in WET’s production. Director Jen Wineman lets a couple moldy bits linger too long, but generally, she’s quick on the hard reset, turning over new gags with newer gags in a breathless state of comic renewal.
There’s also the perfectly attuned performance from Samie Detzer as the titular hunchback, Maxima Terriblé Segunda, a secret adopted sister of Spain’s Queen Isabella, locked in a tower amidst books, cats, and maps. Outfitted with a constantly shifting hump, a grotesque prosthetic nose, and a Kristen Schaal meets Sarah Vowell lisp, Detzer still manages to underplay, acting as a comic foil to basically every other character on stage. Maxima’s outsider bona fides are well established — she’s an atheist and one of the few Spaniards to morally question the “freaking horrific bloodbath” her country is waging in the New World.
And yet, when the rapidly decaying Isabella (Maria Knox) comes calling in hopes that Maxima will act as adviser once Isabella kicks the bucket and her unstable daughter, Juana (Libby Barnard), inherits the crown, Maxima can’t help but consider the possibilities.
Clearly, Juana is unfit for the job. Historically mentally ill, but here rendered as an infantile psychotic, Juana is brought to vivid life by a cackling Barnard, who gives the show its signature moment with a temper tantrum that could almost save the word “epic” from a much-needed linguistic exile. Here’s a joke that’s not all that funny to begin with and becomes even less funny as it drags on and on and then somehow circles back around to hilarious by virtue of its sheer excess and Barnard’s total commitment to thrashing the stage and the audience’s eardrums.
There’s nothing else quite like that maelstrom in Seville, but it is indicative of WET’s zeal for the material, ensuring that this end of an era does anything but go quietly into the night.
The Hunchback of Seville runs through June 30. Tickets are available for purchase online.
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