Le Petomane Ensemble Goes Gonzo for Derby

by Erin Keane on April 19, 2012

Whether you go all-in for every party or you consider it a badge of honor to ignore the big race, if you live in Louisville, you have opinions about the Kentucky Derby. Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble celebrates Louisville’s season of pageantry and parties with “A Derby Carol,” a rousing send-up of the most exciting two weeks and two minutes in our city’s year that could easily become an annual tradition to rival the Charles Dickens classic it lampoons.

“A Derby Carol” opens tonight at The Bard’s Town (1801 Bardstown Rd.), where it runs through April 29.

Structured as a parody of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” ghosts of Derbies past, present and yet-to-come are dispatched to teach Scrooge (Gregory Maupin) how to regain his lost love for the race and festivities. Several original musical numbers explore Derby mythos, from a big opening “Call to the Post” number to a rousing final-act musical recitation of the past Derby winning horses and their glorious names.

The plot unfolds with a wink to the Dickens template, but the details are delightfully skewed. Scrooge, who has come to detest Derby season, is modeled on and styled as the late writer and Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson, author of the classic gonzo essay “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” The ghosts include Colonel Sanders as the Spirit of Derby Past, who takes the hero up into a hot air balloon to observe his past revelries from the air.

Recurring characters are a demented mash-up of real Derby celebrities and Dickens characters. Tony Dingman’s front-lawn parking lot entrepreneur is also, somehow, a Victorian urchin. Kristi Rolape plays both socialite gala hostesses, the Stablemint Twins, at once – she splits her make-up and wardrobe in half, portraying an evil twin with the right side of her body and face, and the good twin on the left.

Abigail Bailey Maupin portrays Tiny Tim as a starving jockey (“Where Is Lunch?”). Stock characters also abound, notably Heather Burns as a reality television celebrity party guest famous for doing nothing and a delusional Derby Princess, and Kyle Ware as a beer-guzzling “Infielder” who crashes the gala with a scorching musical number.

Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble comprises six performers who write, direct, compose, choreograph and design each show together. The Le Petomane process is highly idiosyncratic and ephemeral – they work from notes, not a full script, and they are often creating all of the elements of a scene, from dialogue to set design, at once. In a lesser company, that could be a recipe for disaster, but Maupin, Bailey Maupin, Dingman, Burns, Ware and Rolape all bring years of professional acting and directing experience, classical training and a finely-honed understanding of each others’ strengths to the stage.

“A Derby Carol” is full of jokes only locals could write, with plenty of laughs for Derby fans and foes alike. Outsiders wouldn’t be close enough to the source material to give the show its teeth–bulimic jockey jokes, “So-and-So’s Louisville” banners, inarticulate locals celebrating when “famous people said words to me!” But the funny bits are filtered through literary allusions and the straight-faced classic weirdness (grotesque masks, mismatched toy props, surreal movement numbers) that is pure Le Petomane, with a strange and beautiful heart beating behind the yuks. And true to the source and to holiday spirit (spoiler alert!), Gonzo Scrooge finally repents, buys a festival pin, and resolves to keep the Derby spirit in his heart all year long.

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