Sailing Away 

Prairie Dog pays homage to toon classic with Popeyed

During a recent return to the not-quite-ready-for-Prime-Time world that is Prairie Dog Productions, it dawned on my theater companion and I that company co-founder and actor Gary Winterholler is a goof.

That is to say, Winterholler has played the dimwitted sidekick, hero, you name it--in pretty much every Prairie Dog production we've seen. The shtick is one, though, that serves this National Shakespeare Conservatory graduate well, and one that he comfortably parlays into Prairie Dog's "host," for lack of a better word.

Winterholler enthusiastically confronts the audience every night before the show opens, asking for birthdays, anniversaries, etc.--followed by gently goading audience members into singing a familiar song. The routine is one that successfully puts adults at ease and also appeals to children, who make up a sizeable chunk of Prairie Dog's audience.

In the troupe's latest musical parody, Popeyed the Sailor, Winterholler turns up as, you guessed it, the dimwitted ... brother to Bruno (aka Bluto) Brutarkski (Tate S. McCullough), the play's chief villain.

And yes, all you cartoon nostalgists out there, this is indeed a takeoff from Popeye the Sailor, the animated series of shorts that aired back in the '60s and '70s--though actor Jeremy Olsen's interpretation of the squinty-eyed, pipe-totin,' spinach-lovin', and dare I say, dimwitted hero reminds me more of Robin Williams' turn as Popeye in the 1980 live action film.

I was surprised to find that Popeye's origins go back to 1929, when the character debuted in a then 10-year-old comic strip by Elzie Seagar called Thimble Theater. The character's popularity has endured, likely due to The Popeye Show, which still airs today on The Cartoon Network.

Prairie Dog's Popeyed, of course, has little in common with any of its forefathers. I personally think producing the show was a good excuse to get frequent Prairie Dog player Frederick Scott into a dowdy red dress and black skirt and give him a short black wig with a wisp of a ponytail, transforming him into Popeyed's love interest Olive Oyl ... er, I mean Olive Voil.

There is a good-versus-evil plot here--something to do with smuggling stolen diamonds--but for the adults out there, it's more fun really to just sit back and watch for all the in-jokes and campy song send-ups that are Prairie Dog's trademarks. Gary Lyman and Jerry Springer are poked fun at, while Aimee Nell Smith (as kinky villainess Barbie) deservedly earns top music honors for her rendition of "Big Rock on my Hand" to the tune of The Beatles' "With a Little Help from my Friends."

Scott is the show's scene-stealer, thanks to his higher raspy voice, exaggerated body gestures, comedic timing, and, of course, that outrageous costume. A close second is John Ronchetti's dead-on interpretation of hamburger guzzler Blimpy (that's Wimpy to all you Popeye fans).

Olsen is sometimes hard to hear and understand--no doubt due to that pipe sticking out of his mouth during almost the entire show combined with something akin to an Irish accent--but his physical comedic prowess more than makes up for any occasional vocal deficiency.

McCullough, as always, is a delight--sporting a beard, coveralls and an almost pirate-like sneer as Bruno. Ken Macke works in a few laughs as very grown-up baby Sweety, while Carly Latimore draws some attention as Olive's, uh ... droopy breasted Momma.

Popeyed the Sailor directed by Cammie Pavesic

7:15 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays June 4 to 19

Prairie Dog Productions, 3820 Cassia St.

More info/tickets: 336-7383

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