Parody Show Preview: “Finding Nemo Contributorily Negligent”

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It all begins with the sound of meandering footsteps, ominous but curiously clumsy, as if something wicked had lost its way. In the teasing opening seconds of the sensational – in all senses of the word – 2005 Harvard Law School Parody Show, “Finding Nemo Contributorily Negligent” – you’re likely to experience that mixed thrill that is part giggle and part goose flesh, the kind that descends when you hear a sudden thud in a dark and quiet house.

You suspect that whatever lurks behind the tattered black curtains of the Ropes Gray Room, where the Parody will open this coming Tuesday and run for five nights, is either truly fearsome or really ridiculous. Trust your instincts: the 2005 Parody, produced by Danielle Rothman and Matt Smith, is, oh so deliciously, both.

Therein lies the genius of this one-of-a-kind “nasty picture book” of a musical, in which badly-behaved law students learn profound lessons about life, love, and legal research. A spiky, subversive riff on Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter,” a droll collection of grisly bedtime stories from the mid-19th century, “Finding Nemo Contributorily Negligent” is both the silliest and the most sinister show in town. It is also, as it happens, one of the smartest.

Directed with unstinting imagination and brazen assurance by Bettina Clark, and featuring bizarrely beautiful wooden set pieces by Taylor Dasher, the 2005 Parody manages to wallow in and tear apart our enduring appetite for satirizing ourselves and our professors. And while its medium is the time-worn conventions of sketch comedy and parody lyric, this bold realization of an even bolder vision makes last year’s effort seem like a poor imitation of a reality in fact too bold to even contemplate.

The vultures have been salivating over the show for months. How could they not be? All those stories of production-freezing technical glitches as the light switches failed to activate in the Ropes Gray room; the reported rumors that Lexis had failed to donate any money to the show; and, beyond all that, the mere fact of a law school musical named after a cartoon fish, a singing-and-dancing rendition of the young century’s most famous maritime character: yes, it all seemed to portend a memorably bloody chapter in the history of flops in Pound Hall.

But law-themed theater disaster cultists like Professor Bruce Hay will have to wait, however, as will Record headline writers armed with scalpels and the obvious puns. “Nemo,” which will open on schedule next week to a soon-to-be-sold-out audience, doesn’t drown. It swims. And majestically so.

The show, performed by a cast of thousands, oh so quickly leaves the dock. Like the fish that gives the show its name, the talents behind “Nemo” have worked hard to create something of epic scope and technological wonder. Few of the metaphoric implications of this animated fish, an endless source of historic and literary contemplation since it appeared on movie screens last year, have been neglected.

The miracle of “Finding Nemo Contributorily Negligent” is that it traces the idea of multiplicity on so many equally satisfying levels: within Nemo, the narrator, who speaks often of the different identities he has assumed throughout his life and agonizes over roads not taken; within every law student who appears on the stage; within the surprise cameos by a handful of popular professors.

And while you may well draw specific parallels to contemporary figures and events, it’s this show’s infinite open-endedness that makes it such a treasure. With “Nemo,” the Drama Society has singlehandedly rejuvenated the law school parody show by making its boundaries porous, so that against the odds it feels as universal as it does particular.”I am large,” said Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes.” So, improbably but gloriously, does “Finding Nemo Contributorily Negligent.” Tickets available in the Hark and at the door. Show opens Tuesday night March 8 and runs through Saturday, March 12. All shows at 8 p.m. except Saturday at 7.

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