Lorne Elliott usually works alone. He’s not antisocial – the witty, wild-haired comedian/actor/writer/musician has dabbled in many collaborations over the years, both long and short term, such as years spent hosting the CBC radio comedy series Madly Off in All Directions; but the bulk of his storied career has been a seemingly endless series of comedic one-man shows filled with standup, storytelling, songs and general merriment.
Most of this oft-roving Quebec entertainer’s many PEI appearances tend to slot into that pattern of sly solo silliness, but this summer he’s trying something a bit different: a revival of Culture Shock, a play Elliott wrote way back in the 1980s for himself and Newfoundland’s Kevin Blackmore (a.k.a. “Buddy Wasisname”), who spent several years teamed with Elliott as the musical comedy duo Free Beer.
Oft-remounted and oft-revised (and last staged on PEI at Victoria Playhouse 15 years ago), the play in its current form features Elliott, Paul Broadbent and Justin Shaw, all playing two major on-stage roles apiece plus assorted offstage voice-over parts.
Wide-eyed naïf Hillyard Philpott (Shaw), tired of sleepy small-town life with his crotchety father (Elliott) in Newfoundland outport Jarvis Arm, hitchhikes to Montreal. He’s picked up by Quebecois brothers Jean and Réjean (Elliott and Broadbent), newly escaped convicts. The brothers get Hillyard unwittingly mixed up in a bank robbery, then follow him back home, where Hillyard’s dad, his mailman Cyril (Broadbent) and meddling lawman Constable Hurley (Shaw) also get entangled in post-robbery complications.
The script is fast-paced, funny and linguistically playful, and the bilingual Elliott has fun with cross-cultural bits like awkwardly translating certain types of Quebec swearing into English, not to mention plenty of colourful Newfoundland turns of phrase. The meandering plot adds up to goofily fun farce with plenty of entrances, exits, mistakes, misunderstandings and misdirections pitting the six confused main characters against each other in various combinations over the course of the night.
Shaw’s Hillyard is the most fully-formed, consistently entertaining performance here, but all three stars have good bits as all six characters, notably Elliott and Broadbent making their criminal brothers so vividly distinct from their other parts (they’ve got enjoyable surly energy as these proto-Tarantino crooks, whether dissecting the finer points of interprovincial profanity or paying musical tribute to Tweety Bird). The show’s voice-over material is much more hit-or-miss, though, and not always easily audible; and there are some bits of onstage physical business that don’t quite fully land in terms of timing or execution.
Hosting this Culture Shock revival is Harmony House Theatre in Hunter River, a departure from their usual fare since Harmony tends to feature musical acts as opposed to traditional theatrical plays, per se. Here’s hoping they continue experimenting with this sort of material, and that Lorne Elliott comedy keeps appearing on PEI stages in general.