Theater Review - Medicine Showdown's snake oil goes down easy

Flying Carpet Theatre Co. offers a hoodwink and a smile

No one can sell health care like Dr. Arthur Eggerton. In the Flying Carpet Theatre Co.’s The Medicine Showdown, Dr. Eggerton (Jay Allan) commands the kind of traveling medicine show that toured America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Eggerton frequently launches into flamboyant spiels about the healing properties of his elixir, “a tonic of roots, barks and herbs” that’s good for whatever ails you.

??Modern audiences can chuckle at Eggerton’s gobbledygook about how the elixir “re-ionizes the animolecules of your blood” and combats arrhythmia, the source of all disease. We can also recognize how Eggerton’s clientele might be swayed by the impressive-sounding jargon: It’s not that much of a leap to consider modern-day medical lingo and how little you may actually understand of your doctor’s diagnosis or the scientific explanations of pharmaceuticals on TV commercials. In the midst of a national debate over health care reform and worries about the H1N1 flu, The Medicine Showdown’s medical anxieties arrive like a perfectly timed prescription. ??Eggerton’s medicine show provides the frame for a narrative loosely based on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. In a small Georgia town in 1918, widowed Dr. Claudia Hill (Jo Howarth) worries that an outbreak of Spanish flu in Augusta could spread. She urges the mayor (Theatre Gael’s John Stephens) to ban all public gatherings on the eve of a monthlong run of Eggerton’s show. The mayor counters that between the steep cancellation fee in Eggerton’s contract and the lost revenue to local businesses, the town might suffer more from such measures than the actual flu. (It’s like the “Are you going to close the beaches?” scenes from Jaws.)??The Flying Carpet Theatre troupe is based in New York but has longstanding ties to Atlanta: Local playwright Topher Payne co-wrote The Medicine Showdown with director Adam Koplan. Based on Flying Carpet’s previous productions in Atlanta, the company adores old-fashioned forms of theatricality. Its 2005 show The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo brilliantly evoked the era of Houdini-style illusionists, while 2006's Liliom took place against the backdrop of an old-fashioned carnival. ??In The Medicine Showdown, Koplan and company offer pitch-perfect re-creations of vaudeville and medicine show performance techniques that entertain as effectively now as they would have a century ago. Eggerton’s delightful co-stars include singer/jokester Tiny Two-Bits (John Wright, imitating character actor Andy Devine) and tap-dancer Legs Benedict (Khalid Hill), whose rapid-fire dancing includes moves worthy of Savion Glover. Old standards such as "The Ballad of John Henry" (performed with dulcimer and washboard) and corny jokes break down the audience’s defenses for Eggerton’s pitch. Legs falters during one tap routine, only to be restored by Eggerton’s elixir. In another sketch, Eggerton plays a quack doctor who bamboozles Tiny, extracts his money and leaves his ailment uncured. Alas, we only hear about such performers as Countess Christina and her Coterie of Clever Canines.??The Medicine Showdown's song-and-dance performances enthrall the audience more than the dramatic plot. Eggerton’s patter and showbiz shtick prove more appealing than Hill’s scientific arguments and concern for public health. Glitz upstages truth. Unfortunately, the subplot, laden with too much exposition and repetition, falters as drama. Howarth portrays Hill like someone who’s surrendered even before the fight has started. If Howarth underplays Hill, Stephens overplays the mayor as a Southern dandy. He proves hilarious, however, in the dual role of Chief Tuk Tuk, Eggerton’s befuddled-looking, bogus medicine man.
The Spanish flu subplot almost feels superfluous since the Eggerton stage show contains plenty of dramatic tension. The audience recognizes the deception and self-interest underneath Eggerton’s claims, but Allan’s charismatic performance gives the snake oil salesman such blustery confidence and hearty insincerity that his roguish charm is nearly irresistible. The Medicine Showdown’s pointed message suffers from a few side effects, but the play’s delightfully old-fashioned showmanship turns out to be just what the doctor ordered.

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