“The nose is the seat of the face!” declares Ulrich (Brandon Murphy), a medieval master plastic surgeon from Vienna, to Gavin (Scott Zenreich), an orphan and surgeon-in-training. The eager young protégé wants to learn the not-so-subtle craft of facial reconstruction in a lawless time where knights on crusade can get all kinds of “soft appendages” chopped off without warning. In Amphibian Stage Production’s sharply delivered regional premiere of The Nosemaker’s Apprentice: Chronicles of a Medieval Plastic Surgeon, the performers positively revel in the gross physicality of 12th-century feudal Europe — blood, excrement, and pus flow in rivers of comically cringeworthy verbiage to describe untreated battle wounds and festering venereal diseases.
Playwrights Nick Jones (currently a scriptwriter on Orange Is the New Black) and Rachel Shukert make the Middle Ages even skankier than Monty Python did in The Holy Grail, but the authors are after bigger game than the grade-school gross-out humor from which the crack Amphibian cast wrings a lot of laughs. The Nosemaker’s Apprentice has a surprisingly rich literary texture to it, drawing from Joseph Campbell’s beloved canon of heroes restoring wastelands to their original glory. Thankfully, director David A. Miller keeps the pace brisk but deliberate enough for audiences to savor this artful journey through the brutish Middle Ages decked out with lots of contemporary snark.
Indeed, theatergoers who are looking for another antic Spamalot! throwaway may be surprised to discover a suspenseful plot and well-drawn characters in Jones and Shukert’s script. The play is delivered as a bedtime story told with increasing urgency by an alcoholic father (Jay Duffer) to his bored 8-year-old daughter (Alexandra Lawrence). According to Dad (himself a plastic surgeon with a suspicious Brazilian medical degree), medieval Europe was a lucrative market for reconstructive surgeons selling prosthetic body parts made out of almost anything — wood, metal, duck fat — but real human flesh. Surgical hacks like Theodore of Lubriderm and Simon the Bisexual made names and fortunes for themselves, but someone had to play the daring innovator. Thus our hero Gavin is rescued from the Ivanhoe Workhouse for Criminally Impoverished Boys by his first mentor, the English surgeon Wulfric (Murphy) whose pretty daughter Amelia (Lawrence) has that rarest of qualities — a symmetrically, aesthetically pristine schnoz (“a perfect 30-degree angle from the face and not too nostril-y”). Gavin’s surgical skills and restless creativity eventually lead him to study at the Nosemaker’s Academy of Vienna under his second mentor, Ulrich (Murphy). His success there carries him to the society circles of France, where the wealthy wives pay Gavin to beautify them with little nips and tucks, and eventually leads him to the Queen of France herself (Murphy again), a seriously twisted narcissist seeking liposuction as well as a studly young lover.
However, a knight named Percival (John Forkner) with a face rotting from syphilis has hatched a revenge plot against Gavin and all of medieval Europe, effectively banning reconstructive surgery. Can Gavin fulfill his mission to create the first natural prosthetic honker? His adventure leads to a fiery finish, to say the least.
For all its naughty reveling in feudal European sewage, The Nosemaker’s Apprentice elegantly maintains two parallel narrative tracks: spastic comedy stocked to overflowing with wordplay and physical shtick and well-constructed hero quest informed by historical, religious, and literary themes and symbols. Most of the cast members play multiple roles with ease, fleshing out even the briefest characters with distinct personality details. (Sporting Victor N. Brockwell’s marvelously grotesque commedia masks, Forkner plays a sarcastic orphanage gatekeeper and a contemptuous Viennese receptionist at the Nosemaker’s Academy, making both memorable.)
The Nosemaker’s Apprenticedoes drag a little in its final scenes — slicing off 10 minutes or so would tighten it and heighten its impact considerably. Still, Amphibian’s production is bold, brainy, funny, and sometimes a little creepy, and it achieves most of the high ambitions it sets for itself. That’s something not even Simon the Bisexual could boast.
The Nosemaker’s Apprentice: Chronicles of a Medieval Plastic Surgeon
Thru Aug 10 at Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S Main St, FW. $18-33. 817-923-3012.