By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Shortly after Pat Buchanan gave his notorious "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a joke began to circulate that was unusually pointed and, well, flat-out funny to have come from a liberal perspective. It goes something like this: "It's a little-known fact, but Pat Buchanan had a relative who died in the Holocaust."
Return of the Phantom of the Opera runs through May 19 at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, 5400 E. Mockingbird. Call (214) 821-1860
"Yeah, he slipped and fell off the guard tower."
Holocaust jokes are, as you might imagine, an extremely sub-sub-genre of American humor, but from Charlie Chaplin to Daffy Duck to Adam Sandler, Nazis have been kicked around for comic purposes as long as we never get a glimpse of what they actually accomplished. No reason that Pocket Sandwich Theatre shouldn't reserve a few heated kernels for the SS in its audience-participation, "popcorn-throwing" spoofs. It's a clever conceit that Dieter Schmidt (Greg Pugh) and Hilde Gruter (Allyn Carrell), the officers who have seized the Paris Opera House in 1943, should share the stage with the traditional, apolitical villain The Phantom in David Meyer's Return of the Phantom of the Opera, and that this ghastly, merciless masked loner would be cheered on for Hannibal Lecter-style carnage to drive the Nazis out. We have little doubt who'll prevail--beer and nachos at the Pocket don't mix well with a downer ending. But, the perfect expression of the show's overall devilishness comes at the end, when a freed French captive named Helen Giry (Dona Safran) sighs with a relieved, dreamy smile: "Now ze Phantom can retarn to dropping shandaleers on unzezpecting operagoerz."
Yep, Return of the Phantom of the Opera is the kind of show you want to quote phonetically, be it in the fevered French or nasty, leering German accents that the cast brandishes with glee. From the beginning, when a showgirl in a stars-and-stripes costume named Trixie Trawlins (Jennifer Hutchison) leads us in a gratingly cheerful singalong with "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and a radio transmission crackles with news of the German invasion of France, director Daniel Morrow keeps his large cast zipping across the tiny stage to the advantage of the script's ham-handed historical broadsides. It's well-nigh impossible to explain why the Pocket Sandwich sometimes succeeds and sometimes doesn't, except for individual tastes in guilty-pleasure humor. I've never been a big sci-fi fan, so watching the aquatic Utopian send-up of 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea didn't really connect with me. On the other hand, I once laughed myself wet watching Benny Hill play a horny, sniveling SS officer, so this one brought back pleasant memories.
I also happen to be a big fan of onscreen and onstage violence (when it's done well), especially when deployed for comic ends. And so the severed heads and disemboweled corpses of Return of the Phantom of the Operawere soothing haunted-house-in-April touches that made me watch to see what would happen next. My favorite gag of the evening came, unfortunately, rather early on, leaving lingering disappointment that it was never topped. Officer Hilde Gruter yanks the Paris Opera House's reigning diva Marie de Chagney (Angela Groh) out of the role of Brunhilde in Wagner's Die Walkure and installs Hilde's sister Gretchen, played by a big hairy guy in yellow braids and horned helmet named Larry Colvin. Colvin generously gives himself over to the role of walking sight gag and rewarded me with the evening's best moment, when Gretchen scrambles backstage in midperformance, draped with the top half of a gutted Nazi officer whom The Phantom has dropped from the fly space. I don't really know if that's funny, but damn if I didn't laugh.