Wednesday, September 9, 2009
These Days Host Maureen Cavanaugh speaks with KPBS film critic about "Spamalot"
"Spamalot" continues through the weekend at the San Diego Civic Theater. I had a chance to speak with actor Ben Davis about playing multiple parts in the play inspired by "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." You can also hear my discussion about the play on These Days.
"Spamalot" is loosely based on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." So despite numerous side trips to silliness (like a Finnish song and dance with fish slapping), the musical production is mostly about King Arthur and his quest for the Holy Grail. In typical Python fashion, most of the actors in the production play multiple roles. Davis is the brave Sir Galahad as well as the stubborn Black Knight and Prince Herbert’s frustrated father. I spoke with Davis while he was still up in L.A. performing the play. You can also read my review of the play and interview with Christopher Gurr (who plays King Arthur in the San Diego Production).
Were you a fan of Python before coming to the show?
BEN DAVIS: I was a passive fan, I wasn’t one of those rabid fans that we get at the show that can know our lines before we even say them. But I think that’s the great thing about the show is that it can take someone who’s not overly familiar with the material and brings them to become fans of Monty Python because it’s really a great introduction to those who don’t know it and it’s also a reinforcement of what people already love for those who do.
How would you define Python's comedy style? They tend to mix very low comedy with more verbal, smart comedy.
BEN DAVIS: There’s a little bit of everything for everybody. If you love the frat boy fart humor you’re great; there’s a little social commentary mixed in there and political commentary goes on too. One of my characters, Galahad actually, is named Dennis beforehand, and there’s the constitutional peasant scene [a variation on the "help, help we're being repressed" scene in "Holy Grail"] where he tries to take on the King’s ruling system so it takes on a little bit of everything for everybody.
What have you enjoyed about performing in the play?
BEN DAVIS: Honestly I think it’s the response we get from the audience. To have a job where you get to make people laugh and to hear that instantly from them, there’s really nothing better than that, it feeds the soul especially in times that aren’t always great. So it’s nice to have that.
Did you see the movie before taking on the role?
BEN DAVIS: The worst thing that I could ever do would be to try and imitate Michael Palin [who played Galahad in the film] or any of them. So what I do is go back and try to capture the essence or what I can from the film. Sometimes I still go back to it and I’ve been doing the show for almost two years and along the way you find yourself believe it or not getting lost sometimes. So it’s nice to have that source material to go back to and kind of re-anchor yourself within it.
Christopher Gurr spoke of a creative tension between the styles of writer Eric Idle and director Mike Nichols. Did you see that and do you feel it gave the show an energy?
BEN DAVIS: I think it’s always a balancing act and I think what Mike Nichols always wanted to do is and always reminded us of is always “You’re not funny, the material is.” So it was about trusting in the material and not feeling like you have to gild the lily in any sort of way. And I think what Eric is all about is he’s a performer and it’s all about getting the laugh, getting the laughs, gettig the laughs. So I think those were the two kinds of different styles but I think they in some weird way allow you to take a little bit from this and a little bit from that, and see what works best and sometimes the way you get the laughs like Eric wants you to is by just trusting the material like Mike wants you to. So there’d times when they come in harmony.
So is trusting the material not necessarily playing it for a laugh but playing it for some other kind of truth that’s in there?
BEN DAVIS: I think that’s what the thing is that you find in this show and in a lot of comedy is these are real characters in absurd situations and so that’s the comedy of it, to find some truth in these ridiculous situations and to play that as honestly and earnestly as you can and that’s where the comedy comes from.
Talk about the style of Monty Python humor cause these guys were smart even when they were doing low humor. What made them unique?
BEN DAVIS: Well I think a lot of it was their irreverence, they didn’t hold anything too high. They didn’t take anything too seriously. They like to take the things that we as a society like to hold up and revere and they kind of took the piss out of it and kind of made fun of it. And I think that’s something that we need because we tend to get so hung up on things in our lives. And if a group of people go you know what it ain’t that serious I think it resonated obviously with a lot of people and I think it takes men of their intelligence and abilities to do that skillfully. Everyone can do it and make it almost rude or make it crass and they can do that as well and they have done that but they also lend some particular intelligent insight to these things and make you go “Yeah why do we hold that up to such high esteem?”
You also play the Black Knight, how is that?
BEN DAVIS: (0750) It’s a lot of voice and the tricks -- without giving too much away -- I fight to the bitter end even while losing limbs. And what helps is that they – and I can’t remember the person who drew it all up – but the mechanisms that I have that make me able to lose my limbs, it’s pretty fantastic. They did a great job so long as I can do my job and hit the right things to allow that to happen I’ve won half the battle. He also has these iconic lines that people know. All the characters have those lines. Sometimes when I come out -- especially in the constitutional peasant scene --I can hear my lines being said before I even say them. So it’s a lot of fun to know that the audience is so into it.
So how is that to play a role where the audience may know your lines as well as you do and if I know Python fans are probably eager to say them before you do?
BEN DAVIS: Yeah they do. But they are usually far enough back that I don’t hear them. But every now and then you get it. Actually you get a kick out of it. And sometimes I can see people mouthing them in the first couple rows. And people love this and you want them to come and they are going to be enthusiastic about it so you can’t begrudge them much.
What have you enjoyed most in terms of performing of the characters?
BEN DAVIS: (1032) We’re incredibly fortunate our cast is phenomenal a great group of principal actors and we also have an incredible group of ensemble actors as well as dancers an singers. And I think that’s the most fun that the show allows for a looseness, it allows for things to change on a daily basis And we have the kind of people in the show that want to that don’t want to do the same thing every night and I think that’s the funnest part of it is that you always have to listen because something will come at you differently, there’s always something keeping it fresh for us, and hopefully in terms of the audiences. That’s always the greatest thrill, the talented good people who love what they are doing.
Do you get energy from playing multiple parts?
BEN DAVIS: Oh my god yes, because each character brings with it it’s own set of challenges and different voices so it’s a real challenge every day to bring something new to those characters. That’s a great joy of doing this piece. It doesn’t happen often. So I’m going to enjoy it.