Since its humble beginnings in a backroom at The Graduate with Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis just over two years ago, James Cartee's Citizens of the Universe has prowled around the Plaza Midwood area, spreading the company's deliciously conflicted dogma. They've presented quixotically ambitious projects in the grungiest locales — Reservoir Dogs in a Bohemian studio off 10th Street and Fight Club in a parking lot off Central Avenue. Up the road at Story Slam, where they found shelter until the whole shebang was disgorged back in January, they veered from the streetwise grittiness of Trainspotting to the pastoral elegance of Uncle Vanya.
To the questions are you brutal or pretentious, punk or poetic, crass or crusading, Cartee and his COTU guerrillas have always answered yes.
Now in the wake of the Story Slam blowup, COTU is staging an amazing resurrection — in the shadow of the Time Warner Cable Arena. Yes, the two-year-old guerilla group has ventured out of its Plaza Midwood cradle, presenting William Goldman's The Princess Bride at The Breakfast Club in a stage adaptation by Johnathan Fourniadis of the screenplay.
Breakfast Club isn't the shabbiest joint in the Uptown, but surrounded last Thursday by nearly vacant parking lots sporting absurd $15 and $20 signs in anticipation of the NCAA regionals the following night, the three-story nightclub boasted formidable eyesore credentials. We steeled ourselves with medieval courage and parked as close as we could to the front entrance, which faces away from N. Caldwell Street. Go ahead and fearlessly do the same, for we gratefully learned that Breakfast Club covers the parking tab — even when some stooge leaves a citation on your windshield.
More pleasant is the surprise when you climb the clanging outdoor staircase to Breakfast Club's second level. OK, you may still think it's a dive once you're inside, but it's marvelously apt for the rough magic Cartee and his co-director Mimi Harkness seek to create. There's an overhanging balcony that serves beautifully for the evil Prince Humperdinck's wedding to our darling Buttercup and for assorted royal proclamations.
There is vast interior space, minimizing set changes when we trek from Buttercup's homely homestead to the Cliffs of Insanity and from there to the Fire Swamp — or when Buttercup's true love Westley is finally imprisoned and tortured on The Machine. Even our storyteller and his pesky audience, Grand Dad and Grand Kid, have their own little nook where they can camp out and occasionally interact with the fairy tale protagonists — particularly when Buttercup and Westley presume to smooch.
Suzi Hartness contributes a marvelous set of costumes, from the dwarf brigand Vizzini up to the Turkish giant Fezzik, with plenty of royals, lackeys, tramps and swashbucklers in between. But the real reason this is such a technical apotheosis for COTU is that we see Cartee ensconced in a soundbooth running light and sound cues with electrical equipment actually designed for that purpose, instead of his customary car headlights and kitchen utensils.
Cartee always overachieves in attracting artistic and acting talent, so the cast will likely blow you away most of the time. A Tarradiddle mainstay at Children's Theatre, Lesley Anne Giles knows exactly how to tilt the title character toward an adult audience, but Thorin Thompson is still a work-in-progress as Buttercup's beleaguered lover Westley, acting with dashing credibility but needing to pump up the volume to full theater level.
They're supported alarmingly well, with impressive debuts from Errol Sulleyman as the priggish barbarian Humperdinck and Dominick Weaver as the six-fingered Count Rugan. One unexpected chink in the solid armor is Berry Newkirk as fencing master Inigo, his Spanish accent often an impenetrable thicket. Comically upstaging everyone, David G. Holland and Poppy Prittchit wear tons of makeup and costume, doubling as Humperdinck's doddering royal parents and their lowliest subjects, Miracle Max and spouse.