William McGonagall is considered to be the worst poet in English literature. In Ian Coates’ hilarious and dark new musical, “The Disaster in Verse,” McGonagall is just a doomed, lovable guy trying to write poems.
Coates, a Port Townsend High School senior, is the musical’s playwright, lyricist, composer and director, and delivers on all fronts, from brutal wit and wordplay to dynamic staging in the musical’s world premiere.
In Victorian-era Great Britain, the real-life McGonagall sincerely believed he was a great poet, although his peers universally panned his rhythmically challenged and literalistic poetry (“Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay/Alas! I am very sorry to say/That ninety lives have been taken away”).
Actor Austin Krieg’s physical comedy and charming serenades endear us to McGonagall, despite his disastrous verse. The practical Mrs. McGonagall (Jessica Von Volkli) tries to reason with her passionate (and pompous) husband, but he’s convinced he’s Britain’s next poet laureate. Embarrassed daughter Margaret (Mahina Gelderloos) surprises with modern one-liners (“Young ladies aren’t supposed to educate themselves at this time”), showing Coates’ flair for anachronism.
Coates’ love of words shines in both script and lyrics. Poor Mrs. McGonagall, in an effort to be thrifty, has begun putting dust in lapsang souchong tea bags, a phrase that the actors repeat at least four times. Sometimes it was difficult to hear all the words (and cleverness) spoken or sung by the actors.
Queen Victoria (Miranda McClave) and Mrs. Chambers (Liv Crecca) anxiously await the brilliance of the real poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Jacob Pederson), who presently has writer’s block and sings, “Alfred, Lord Tenn-y-son/Pick up your pen-y-son/Write something less dumb.”
As Tennyson struggles to put words together, McGonagall arrives to offer his free-flowing verse, only to be sent away by The Guard (Alyssa Orey). The playwright’s admiration of Pythonesque* humor makes us question who is really the “best” or “worst” poet in this absurd scenario.
Agnes (Mimi Grant) – who speaks hilariously in a low, unattractive rasp – reads one of McGonagall’s poems, which describes in loving, unequivocal detail of how her own husband, Angus (Joey Gallegos), loaned money to the broke McGonagalls, a revelation that causes a full-blown disaster and ends with Mr. Datcherly (Caleb Lumbard) announcing the death of his cat, Alexander Graham Bell. Phew.
As a director, Coates pushes the limits of craziness and lands on crazy cohesion.
There’s a lot going on, but we don’t lose McGonagall. Compared to Roderick McLean (Rowan Gallagher), a poet spurned by Queen Victoria and who is now out to murder her, McGonagall looks like the world’s best poet.
“Verse” is a tight script and production about a poet making the world a little less dark with his cringeworthy poetry.
*“Pythonesque” is a real word in the English language that describes the surrealist and absurdist humor of the British sketch comedy show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
(Jacqueline Allison is a journalism graduate of Western Washington University, a playwright and former news intern at The Leader.)