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"Sideways Stories" is disciplined and hilarious

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: the Coterie is the hippest theater in town.

Its current production, “Sideways Stories From Wayside School,” plays like a Late Night Theatre show minding its manners. And why shouldn’t it? It’s directed by Missy Koonce, veteran of the gone-but-not-forgotten alternative theater troupe, and features Ron Megee, Late Night’s founder, in multiple bizarre roles. Put Koonce and Megee together and of one thing you can be assured: Memorable theater is liable to break out.

Quick verdict: This is the funniest show I’ve seen in some time. Yes, this production ostensibly is aimed at young audiences but most of the laughs are for grown-ups with an appreciation for the absurd.

Louis Sachar’s novels about a very strange school that is 30 stories tall with one classroom to a floor have been adapted by John Olive and Koonce and company gleefully have their way with his workmanlike script. Three students — Myron (Alex Espy), Leslie (Julie Taylor) and Dameon (Vi Tran) — initially are trapped in the 30th-floor classroom with the sadistic Mrs. Gorf, who likes to make her kids do things like count to 100 alphabetically and turn them into apples with her supernaturally charged ruler.

Mrs. Gorf is, of course, played by Megee, who pulls an impressive Peter Sellers/Alec Guinness in a succession of increasingly strange characters, all costumed outrageously and requiring elaborate face makeup. After Mrs. Gorf inadvertently transforms herself into an apple and is then eaten by the school janitor (Martin Buchanan), Megee reappears as a psychologist, Mr. Pickle; a tango instructor, Miss Valoosh; Mr. Gorf, the late Mrs. Gorf’s son; and the unofficial school mascot, a cow named Mrs. Kidswater.

Megee, committed to a set script and one-hour running time, performs with impressive discipline. A few lines sounded like ad libs to me, but this is a tight show. There’s plenty of manic energy on stage but it’s all controlled.

Megee isn’t alone. The entire cast buys into the Koonce/McGee madness. Taylor, Tran and Espy are delightful to watch in their grown-up parodies of childish petulance and abject fear of monstrous authority figures. Buchanan brings an unobtrusive deadpan style to Louis, the janitor. And Nancy Marcy is hilarious as Mrs. Jewls, a teacher who suffers periodic bouts of demonic possession as Mrs. Gorf, apparently, attempts to assert her malevolent spirit from the place people go when they are turned into apples.

An uncredited Vanessa Severo provides with characteristic comic flair the voice of scary Mrs. Zarves, the unseen teacher from the 19th floor.

Scenic designer Jason Coale (who, by the way, also designed the excellent set for “Copenhagen” at the Off Center Theater upstairs from the Coterie) works in concert with prop designers Espy and Meghann Henry to create a sort of living-cartoon stage environment. Replete with enormous pieces of chalk, over-sized pencils and oddly proportioned walls and windows, the playing area provides the actors all the toys they could possibly ask for.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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