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'Bullshot': Comic relief for hard times

Kidnapping! Torture! Car chases! Sex! Mayhem! Giant spiders!

When is sheer silliness most welcome? Probably when the news is bad and the times are worse and mindless entertainment is just the thing, old chaps. So Camelot Theatre of Talent's revival of the inspired buffoonery known as "Bullshot Crummond," which opened Friday night, is welcome stuff indeed.

In about 1930, Teutonic villain Count Otto Von Brunno (Doug Warner), the second-most dangerous man in Europe, and his evil mistress, Lenya Von Brunno (Priscilla Quinby), who mysteriously shares the count's surname, hatch a plan to ruin the international diamond market, bring England to its knees and just maybe take over the world.

The scheme involves kidnapping famous scientist Professor Rupert Fenton, an act that pits the dastardly duo against the absent-minded Fenton's beautiful daughter, Rosemary, a young woman given to running around in her underwear, and our hero, Hugh "Bullshot" Crummond, ex-officer of His Majesty's Royal Loamshires, flying ace in World War I and master of derring-do.

"Bullshot" was a smash in London's West End and on Broadway was made into a movie in 1983 and seems always to be running somewhere. Warner, who directed, has said that he and his crew approached the venerable spoof as if Ed Wood were making a film with Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Sure. Then they decided it wasn't screwy enough and brought in the Monty Python gang to take it over with consultants from the gang of idiots at Mad magazine.

The play's world is one in which dynamite never goes off when you want it to, a carrier pigeon miraculously shows up when you're in a jam, and the actors look to the wings to see where all those sound effects are coming from.

Some of the best bits come from the production's purposely failed attempts to "open up" the play into a movie, which are specified in the script. If this were a movie, we'd see a real plane when the Von Brunnos fly into English airspace to start the action. In a straight play we might see a set or prop that suggested plane-ness. Here we see an absurd model plane chugging across a screen upstage, and the stick it's mounted on. Following a lights-out crash, the actors come on in parachutes.

In another bit of lunacy, the lights flash off and on to illuminate quick vignettes of good guys and bad guys in a car chase, each pair behind the windshield of a cardboard cutout car. One vignette serves up an absurdly funny surprise.

Six actors portray more than twice that many characters. Each is a take-off on character types from British B-movies of the 1930s, including "Bulldog Drummond" with Ronald Colman, a classic "quota quickie" of the day. All are played strictly for laughs.

In one of the funniest, Warner, as Von Brunno, has a scene with hired hit man Salvatore Scalicio, a Chicago gangster also played by Warner. The scene depends on Warner's alacrity, the quick-change chops of costumer Emily Erhlich-Inget and a strategically placed screen.

Brandon Manley's over-the-top Bullshot mixes a tally-ho spirit with utter ineptitude, a bit like Dudley Do-Right meeting the upper-class British twit of the year.

There were moments that could have been slicker and quicker on opening night. This sort of thing looks like fun but is frightfully demanding in terms of timing. Look for the thing to become a well-oiled machine as the run goes on.

A parodist's problem is that a spoof assumes some knowledge among audiences of the thing being spoofed. How familiar is 1930s British pulp these days? Somewhat, thanks to all its descendants, but you wonder what, say, high schoolers would make of it all. Of course, it's also funny as it stands.

You probably wouldn't want a steady diet of "Bullshot," but then, you wouldn't want "King Lear" every night, either.

Jolly good show, chaps.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.