Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Monty Python's Spamalot
Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

(top row) Nicole Thordsen, Izaak Heath,
John Griffin, and Michael Coury Murdock;
(bottom row) Michael Hunter, Bruce Vieira,
and Dani Innocenti Beem

Photo by Jere Torkesen & HariettePearl Fuggit
Strip malls tend not to be havens of quality. Downscale jewelry shops, bail bondsmen, dollar stores, nail salons–these are generally the sorts of establishments one finds in low-rise retail outlets where the stores face out on a parking lot. Or, in the case of the strip mall tucked into a small lot on Nave Drive in Novato, a jiu-jitsu studio, a dancewear store, and the Novato Theater Company. While I can't vouch for the excellence of the other occupants of the mall, I feel confident in telling you that NTC is the best little theatre company you're probably not attending, maybe in part because it's in a strip mall.

But I implore you, look beyond its modest setting and get yourself to Novato to bask in the hilarious glory that is their production of Monty Python's Spamalot. If you are a fan of Monty Python (as I am, avidly), you will delight in seeing some of your favorite moments–mostly "lovingly ripped off" from their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with bits from their BBC series, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" thrown in–peppered with songs written by Python's Eric Idle (who also wrote the book) and John DuPrez.

If you are by some chance not familiar with the work of the Python crew, be prepared for some inspired silliness, biting satire, and general weirdness. Case in point: After an opening narration by The Historian (Bethe Jensen), establishing the scene ("England, 932 A.D."), the cast has to be told "England! Not Finland!" after performing the "Fisch Schlapping Song," which involves traditional English folk dance steps interspersed with the dancers slapping each other with plastic fish.

With this silliness out of the way (don't worry, more silly to come!), we are introduced to the star of the show, Arthur, King of the Britons. Played with delicious officiousness by Bruce Vieira, Arthur is traveling through the countryside with his "horse," Patsy (Michael Hunter, who is actually a peasant banging two halves of a coconut together to imitate the sound of horse's hooves), in search of knights to join his court at Camelot and sit at the Round Table. Along the way he persuades Robin (Nicole Thordsen), Lancelot (Izaak Heath), Galahad (Michael Coury Murdock), and Bedevere (John Griffin) to become knights.

Once they arrive in Camelot, they are visited by God himself (Jere Torkelsen, in an all-white costume that makes it look as though his is sitting atop a cloud, and with a ultra-basso voice), who sends Arthur on a quest to find the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper.

On their quest they encounter the Knights Who Say Ni, the French taunters ("Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!"), and Swamp Castle, where Lancelot massacres guests at a wedding in an attempt to rescue what he believes is a maiden being forced to marry against her will, but turns out to be Prince Herbert (Kevin Allen), who'd rather run off with Lancelot than marry a local princess who is "beautiful, rich and has huge ... tracts of land."

Despite the clever book and hysterical songs–often send-ups of musical theatre tropes, like "The Song That Goes Like This," "Find Your Grail" and "Whatever Happened to My Part," the show would fall flat if the leads weren't as skilled as the stars of this production. Bruce Vieira, who was wonderful as Gomez Addams in the NTC production of The Addams Family, is even better here. He has a regal bearing that is infused with just enough self-doubt to make his Arthur both endearing and hilarious, and his booming voice fits the role perfectly. Izaak Heath's Lancelot is appropriately narcissistic and prone to violence. and John Griffin imbues Sir Bedevere with a dim-witted demeanor that makes it look like he's always trying as hard as he can to figure out what's going on in any moment.

But the show is stolen by Dani Innocenti Beem, who plays the Lady of the Lake. Beem has been a fixture of North Bay theatre for many years now, but with each role she has continued to grow as a performer. She was solid as Madame Rose in NTC's production of Gypsy, and even better as the Witch in Into The Woods, but this may be the role she was put on Earth to play. Beem is nothing short of brilliant here, with a fantastic, powerful mezzo-soprano that soars and belts and hits every note–while also managing to wring every bit of comedy out of her songs. (Luckily for her, she gets the best numbers in the show.) The character is an uber-diva, and Beem laps up the diva-ness like a kitten to cream. It doesn't hurt that she gets to wear some fabulously flashy gowns courtesy of costume designer Tracy Bell Redig.

The show rockets along, and director Larry Williams uses Michael Walraven's delightful castle set to great use. He has added some brilliant touches throughout, such as the inspired idea to cover the "killer bunny"'s mouth with blood after it dispatches its first victim. And even though the scene with the Black Knight ("Tis but a scratch,") is a little bit clumsily staged, the brilliance of the Pythons' writing saves the day.

There are some terrific theatre companies in the Bay Area (including winners of the Tony Award for best regional theater), but if you're ignoring Novato Theatre Company because you haven't heard of it, or you prefer companies with bigger budgets, let me assure you that you are missing out on some fantastic local talent creating wonderful theatre–even if it does get staged in a strip mall.

Monty Python's Spamalot runs through March 3, 2024, at Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35 general and $25 for those under 18. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-883-4498.