Once a melodrama becomes great theater, it loses any chance of being a great melodrama. So it’s a really good thing that Pocket Sandwich Theatre’s latest melodrama, Werewolf of London, is not great theater.
But what makes a great melodrama? Pocket Sandwich Theatre certainly has the concept down to a T: a show full of traditional villainous behavior, swoon-worthy moments between various lovers and splendid heroics, all tied together with raucous humor. Werewolf of London has plenty of all of these.
The play, running through Nov. 13, was written by Pocket Sandwich founder Joe Dickinson (based on the 1935 horror film of the same name), and it begins with an excursion to Tibet involving a dangerous encounter with a werewolf (and a very bizarre religion that has a lot to do with werewolves). Back in London, the members of the expedition tremble as they realize that a wolf-like creature has been prowling the streets and murdering young women. Incompetent police officers attempt to solve these animalistic crimes, while the werewolf himself tries to figure out why his shirt is covered in blood and there’s a severed hand on his desk.
A member of the strange werewolf religion joins in by casting spells and wreaking havoc, to much dramatic and humorous effect. The rest of the characters are less concerned with the murders than with their personal affairs, and much of the play’s humor is a result of parlor-room innuendo and word play.
If that sounds like a lot for one play to balance, you’re right. Most of the scenes are short and snappy, with a lot of characters onstage at once. Most of the many cast members get a good amount of time to shine, but not all of them take advantage of that time. The funniest characters, in fact, are the ones who are barely onstage at all: the women played by Rachel M. Carothers and Rhonda Rose, who are hardly prominent, and exist only to get mauled by the werewolf or cleverly escape its claws. But their characters and performances are among the most vivid and hilarious.
Perhaps they are partly so funny because of their brevity. If Werewolf of London has one obvious flaw, it’s that its undeveloped characters and surface-level humor don’t carry the weight of a three-act play, even with two 15-minute intermissions. The first act is riveting and hilarious; by the second act, the gags are warming up but the plot is dragging along; when the plot picks up again in the final act, the jokes that were so funny at first have become a little old. (But it’s important to note that those jokes really were downright hilarious.)
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Some aspects of the play are even confusing: Why is a Tibetan character, much of whose comedy stems from his misunderstanding of English culture and language, played by an actor who looks like he stepped from the white-washed halls of Downton Abbey? Maybe it’s a clever joke, maybe it’s a missed plot point, or maybe it’s a reference to the Caucasian actor who played the role in the film version. Either way, the casting choice is disconcerting at best and offensive at worst. Werewolf of London has all the elements of a brilliant horror comedy, but it struggles to put the elements together in the right way.
This fuddling is saved, however, by Pocket Sandwich’s classic audience participation, which makes all of these elements shine — even though they struggle to hang together on their own. In accord with Pocket Sandwich tradition, the audience must react to classic melodrama twists by booing acts of villainy, cheering for heroism and sighing at moments of tenderness or sadness. Of course, you have to throw popcorn viciously at the bad guys. But the true magic of audience participation at Pocket Sandwich comes from the outliers who defy the rules of reaction. Instead of sighing at the lovers’ kisses, the children in the audience cry “ew!”— which more accurately reflects the emotional reactions to the cheesy romances, and makes people laugh.
And why just throw popcorn at the bad guys? You might as well throw it at the good guys, too, simply because it’s funny. If you’re lucky, the actors will in turn throw popcorn at you. If you have a spur-of-the-moment response to one of the more ridiculous scenes, go ahead and spout it for everyone to hear (just keep profanity and crudity to a minimum — as we said, there are kids in the audience!). The actors are all having enough fun with their roles to engage with the audience as well, returning pithy comments with a sly glance and sometimes complaining about all the popcorn everywhere.
At the end of the night, then, the audience leaves their seats feeling refreshed by laughter spurred on by bad British accents (and a couple of good ones), werewolf tropes, 19th-century levels of innuendo and their fellow audience members. A less enthusiastic theater would have made a mess of Werewolf of London, but this theater magically gets it to work. Per usual, one is in for a good time at Pocket Sandwich Theatre.