Theatre Review: “Philosophus” at Alleyway Theatre

The cast of “Philiosohus” at Alleyway Theatre.

The enlightenment and spiritual awakening of mankind is largely due to the cultural impact of drama and theatre. Theatre is an art form that can transport the audience to new and exciting places, examine the inner workings of the psyche, grapple with the complexities of human existence, and delve into intricate, unexplored emotional terrain. “Philosophus,” a new play by Colin Speer Crowley currently playing at Buffalo’s Alleyway Theatre, does none of those things. And that’s totally OK! Because while it’s not terribly reverent and pretty rough around the edges, it also has moments of great wit and humor.

. . .an all-around funny show and fun time at the theatre.

“Philosophus” is a screwball comedy about the egregiously self-righteous philosopher Voltaire (Chris J. Handley) and his bizarre escapades while he’s on the run in Frankfurt from officers of Fredrick II’s court, the Hitler-like Baron von Freytag (James Cichocki) and Dorn (Andrew Zuccari), after stealing the King of Prussia’s secret manuscripts. Chaos ensues as Voltaire’s escapades soon include Frau Schmidt (Christopher Standart), a money-hungry German shrew; two slightly dim-witted, look-a-like servants (both played by Zuccari); and Mademoiselle Denis (Emily Yancey), Voltaire’s seductive sex-obsessed niece who fancies herself an ingénue.

Chris Handley’s pompous and self-important interpretation of Voltaire is without a doubt the strongest element of this show. Throughout the production Handley’s Voltaire hilariously switches between grand, pseudo-philosophical monologues to wry one-liners and slap-sticky embarrassing moments. Perhaps the funniest moment of the show is when Voltaire uses his wit and philosophical prowess to convince the dim-witted Dorn to exchange a faulty pistol for a working one as they’re about to duel to the death.

Handley and Zuccari have cultivated great Three Stooges-like chemistry as Voltaire and Collini, constantly breaking the fourth wall and cutting each other down, both physically and rhetorically.

Christopher Standart was a great casting choice as the cross-dressing Frau Schmidt. While his German accent could use some work (I always hesitate to critique an actor’s accent abilities, because I know how tough they are to get right), he more than made up for it with his comedic timing.

Zuccari, who doubles as both Collini and Dorn, did an outstanding job at developing two completely different characters and hilariously switching between them multiple times throughout the show. Both Dorn and Collini brought the laughs (though I thought his Collini was stronger), and he had great comedic chemistry with both Handley’s Voltaire and Cichocki’s Baron Von Freytag.

While “Philosophus” will definitely make you laugh throughout its two hour runtime, there are unfortunately also some moments where you’ll cringe. In particular, the character of Mademoiselle Denis is shockingly sexist, existing in the story as a little more than a sexual prop that doesn’t seem to serve a function other than to constantly reference her breasts. To be clear, this is no fault of Emily Yancey, who has great comedic moments and makes the best of a poorly-written character. It’s the fault of playwright Colin Crowley, who put little effort into his development of the play’s only TRULY female character (Frau Schmidt is played by a male); a character who would be commonplace in a play written 40 or 50 years ago, but whom is surprising—and sad– to see in a play written during the #metoo era.

“Philosophus” has its good and bad but is, for the most part, an all-around funny show and fun time at the theatre.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult humor and situations

“Philosophus” plays until October 6, 2018 and is presented at the Alleyway Theatre. For more information, click here.