The actors on stage glistened with sweat, as did workers carrying tools and stepping over a maze of extension cords in Demens Landing Park. A ruddy man wearing a baseball cap rattled off instructions through a headset microphone. Behind him, a bank of computers controlled lighting and sound for a medieval castle, built from scratch, that would fill a Broadway stage.
This is the work station for Monty Python's Spamalot, this year's American Stage in the Park production. At a recent rehearsal lay an occasional blanket or umbrella, a hint at the thousand or so expected on any given night over the next three weeks.
The cast and crew have been putting in 12- and 13-hour workdays. The night before, a gust of wind took down two flats on the rear wall of the castle, a reminder of the unpredictability that makes this event so alive.
This is not a passive theater space. It talks back.
• • •
This rite of spring also marks the last park production not chosen by Stephanie Gularte. Although the theater's new producing artistic director has revealed her selections for the theater's upcoming season, next year's park show has remained a mystery. She will announce it at a fundraising gala on Friday.
For now, everyone is relaxing into the stage spinoff of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, created by Python alum Eric Idle. While the park musicals in recent years were mostly lighthearted (think Hair, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Wiz), Spamalot is the first in a while to go for full-blown silliness. Spamalot, a satirical take on England's medieval past and present, which debuted on Broadway in 2005, includes hurled cows, killer bunnies, people being slapped in the face with fish and a coming-out party for a member of King Arthur's court.
It's also paradise for the hardcore Python fans in the cast — who, like many top comedians, regard Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam as the comic equivalent of the Beatles.
Among those is Stephen M. Ray, who sat under an umbrella taking in the performance. Around him were three baseball gloves and grass-stained baseball for tossing around during breaks.
Ray, who plays Sir Lancelot, has devoured everything he could find about the comedy troupe. As fans of Monty Python's Flying Circus remember, skits did not end so much as dissolve into the next one. Ray loved what he saw. Watching a pre-Broadway production of Spamalot only reinforced his convictions.
"I got it," said Ray, 37. "And I've met people who just don't get it — the absurdity of everything, how silly it all was, really spoke to me."
To be in a musical that makes fun of musicals, you have to be able to take a joke. The self-satirizing Song That Goes Like This is among Ray's favorites.
"This just completely pokes into the big hole of musical theater," he said, "and to be able to take that is fun."
• • •
This annual rite of spring started in 1986 as Shakespeare in the Park with The Taming of the Shrew. The picnic atmosphere created a fan base that has spilled over to area shops and restaurants.
"It's a big deal," said Elliott Gunther, general manager of Cassis American Brasserie. "Downtown St. Pete loves it. People come in before and after the show. There are regulars here who go one, two, three or four times."
It's good for the theater, too. Much larger crowds more than offset the low prices (lawn space starts at $16).
"A lot of people will see the show who couldn't point out American Stage on a street map," said Becca McCoy, 38, who plays the Lady of the Lake.
Spamalot will present a spectacle as big as any, starting with a cast of 18 clambering around that castle designed by Jerid Fox, mounted with movable lights and a massive sound capability.
"You have people in the towers, people on the second floor, people down dancing on the ground level," McCoy said.
Director Jonathan Williams has worked with the cast "on creating real people who have a real agenda and committing to the absurdity of the world as truth," McCoy said. "The more committed you are to creating this real world, the better the absurdity plays."
Williams, 48, was the drill sergeant with the baseball cap. He is also Gularte's husband and a lifelong fan of Monty Python fan and the iconoclastic attitude they espoused, even for comedy.
"The way I talk about (Spamalot)," he said, "is that it's really a perfect collision of Monty Python in that sensibility, and a send-up of what's expected inside of Broadway. It's not just irreverence for Broadway. There is a reverence inside of the way that it's sent up. And that's what Python did all the time, too — with great reverent irreverence, if you will — to all sorts of things in British society back in the day."
He has been planning for months, mapping out every contingency.
"You're trying to think through, well, what's going to happen the day that we've got the rain? Or what happens when an entire flock of birds decides to come and perch on top of our lighting system in the middle of a number?"
Most of the cast hails from Tampa Bay or nearby.
"I think that's really great for the tradition that is the park and what American Stage stands for inside of the community," he said. "I'm really happy that we were able to do that without having to bring in a New York ringer or something like that."
• • •
The cast and crew were still at Demens Landing after 9 p.m. Night had changed the mood. From the edge of the stage, choreographer Shain Stroff called out cadences for several male dancers.
His name is Lancelot. / And in tight pants a lot, / he likes to dance a lot …
The park seemed to come alive at night. Birds crisscrossed between power lines and the heat was gone. Lights spilling onto the lawn now included Beach Drive and Parkshore Plaza.
Standing in the middle of it evoked a pleasant feeling somewhere in the neighborhood of civic pride. Thirty years after its launch, American Stage in the Park has matured into a older institution, one that simply could not happen anywhere other than here.
The dancers were not going full out, just marking their spots. Still, they stuck the landing on the final note.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.