During this, the silliest season of Ashland theater, with multiple multi-million dollar productions blooming like cherry blossoms across the Rogue Valley, Ashland Contemporary Theatre Artistic Director Jeannine Grizzard (in her wisdom) decided to slip in a sly and sophisticated little stage reading of a dynamic dramedy entitled "Men of Tortuga." This opaquely named play has the perfect title; a group of men, variously dubious in their dark suits and wicked ways, have gathered in a secluded location to plot the assassination of a prominent official.
Out of this nefarious gaggle emerges some of the most hilarious dialogue I have seen in quite a long while. Mr. Wells is a gifted writer with a serious talent for combining dramatic intent with a sort of Monty Python-esque absurdity that would go far in explaining why this strange little play originally emerged out of the vaunted Steppenwolf Theatre's First Look Festival some years ago, with accolades to spare.
Grizzard (herself serving as onstage narrator for the show) and her director, Sam Osheroff, have selected a good play to stage using so sparse an environment, since the writing is sufficiently visceral to fill an almost empty stage; Wells is somewhat reminiscent of Mamet when it comes to the pace and urgency of his dialogue. The men on hand — Avery (Don Matthews) Taggart (John Lambie) Kling (Josh Gross) Maxwell (David Dials) and Fletcher (Reece Bredl, who audiences might also remember as the strident apprentice to Peter Alzado's ageing artist in ACT's 2016 production of "Red") — are all remote in their dealings; Taggart is quite possibly an assassin.
Maxwell may have been a United States Senator. Avery seems as though he might own a chemical corporation, and so it goes. All of the characters are here for their own reasons, with the only rapidly fraying fraternal bond being that they all want to use a missile to take out an invisible antagonist — a person who is never named or seen, but who looms large over the proceedings like the Mustapha Mond of late capitalism.
Don Matthew's Avery is played as a kind of dour, gavel-wielding Nuremberg judge, and he comes over as the most patient among the men in the group. As Taggart, John Lambie is the only suitless chap. He appears in leather jacket and turtle neck, a menacing sartorial maneuver that allows him to present as the most ruthlessly independent of the bunch. Josh Gross's Kling (one of the two best performances of the play) is a twisted, sweaty, spitting golem with a scratchy beard and an expensive but ill-fitting grey suit. Gross is not holding back on his performance. He is red-faced, neck-vein pulsing, bug-eyed and reactionary, while still managing to come over as nebbishly ineffectual. As Maxwell, David Dials gives perhaps the best performance of the show; he is sinister and steady-handed in the chaos as only a true sociopath could hope to be. Finally, as Fletcher, Bredl is convincing as the sanest of the bunch; in the upside-down world of the Men of Tortuga, such level-headed logic might lead to his untimely demise.
Wells has taken a seemingly deadly serious idea — the assassination of a prominent figure — and has turned it into a couple of hours of high-octane hilarity. The men argue over the most minute details of their plot; they break with one another on simple matters of planning.
The genius of the play is in its mockery of alpha male posturing and the inevitable one-upping and swordfighting that follows — not one of these wicked bastards is willing to give an inch, even if it means the demise of their increasingly rickety scheme.
In the end, the themes are terrific, the comedy is raucous, and the crowd leaves satisfied. This delicious little aperitif is a good way to spend an evening before you tackle the weightier fare available this season on Ashland's groaning table of theatrical offerings. "Men of Tortuga" is a sound show. Get it while it's hot.
Only two more shows are planned, starting at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 22, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 23, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Tickets ($15) are available at Paddington Station, Grocery Outlet and online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org. For more information, call 541-646-2971.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.
(April 19: This story has been updated to include the name of the theater company, the title of its artistic director, and the time, date and location of remaining performances.)