When Martin Esslin coined the phrase “theater of the absurd” in 1960, he was attempting to describe a style championed by such notable playwrights as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco.
Before the decade was out, however, six British comics would give new meaning to Esslin’s expression with the television sketch comedy known as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
The enormous popularity of that series led to the creation of numerous record albums, books and films that explored satire, surreal humor and dark comedy. The brainchild of Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and a quartet of other funny men also inspired the 2005 Broadway musical “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
That Tony Award-winning musical will fill the third slot of Lyric Theatre’s 2014 summer season. Directed by Ashley Wells and choreographed by Brian Barry, the outrageous comedy stars Steve Blanchard as King Arthur, Meredith Inglesby as the Lady of the Lake, Monte Riegel Wheeler as Lancelot and Matthew Alvin Brown as Robin. Zak Sandler is music director.
“The show is a series of little skits that you have to fit together carefully,” Wells said. “There’s also a fine line between creating something new and staying true to what it is. We certainly want to do things right for all the Monty Python fans. It takes a while to find the timing, but once you get the rhythm right, the jokes should land.”
Drawn largely from the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the musical spoofs the famous Arthurian legend. In it, King Arthur and four of his Knights of the Round Table set out in search of the Holy Grail.
Not surprisingly, their travels are frequently interrupted by such Pythonesque creations as a French taunter, the Knights of Ni, a killer rabbit, Mrs. Galahad, some Laker Girls and even God himself.
And while audiences will recognize Arthur, Galahad and Lancelot, these are not the familiar characters created by T.H. White in his 1958 novel “The Once and Future King” or the principals in Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot.”
“Lancelot is tough as he can be,” Wheeler said of his character. “He’s also a little bit dim, but he has a heart of gold. One of the fun things about playing this character is the opportunity to surprise a whole new group of audience members.
“This is material that is deceptively simple. There’s also a heft under the stupidity. But it’s a smart stupid. You cannot do a show like this uninformed. You have to go with your gut, but at least half of your brain has to be involved in order to make it work.”
Although the Lady of the Lake is only mentioned in the Monty Python film, the seductive character figures prominently in the stage musical. It’s a role that allows for considerable comedic flair.
“I’m in love with the Lady of the Lake,” Inglesby said about her role. “She frequently breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience. There’s a lot of riffing and ad-libbing, so I throw in some Cher, Judy (Garland) and Liza (Minnelli). You let the absurdity happen and just go with it.”
Leading this group of zanies is Arthur, the legendary king whose authority is constantly challenged on his quest to find the Holy Grail. And while this is a role that challenges any actor lucky enough to play him, its rewards outweigh any challenges.
“As funny as the show is, Arthur has to play the reality of gathering these knights to find the Grail and get to the end,” Blanchard said. “The basis of this comedy is playing it straight while everyone goes nuts around me.
“Fortunately, Eric Idle created all these little holes so the actors can make it their own. I’m a big Python fan, so I steal everything I can from Graham Chapman. Arthur is the straight man who drives the bus toward finding the Holy Grail. You just have to get on board and keep the pedal to the metal.”
‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’
2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.