Playwright Andrew Hungerford had a solid foundation for his very silly 2013 Fringe show, A. J. Raffles: Amateur Cracksman. It was, in fact, a series of stories in the 1890s and a 1904 play (titled Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman). Victorian writer E. W. Hornung created the character somewhat in response to the work of his brother-in-law Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes was all the rage. Raffles was conceived as a lovable amateur thief, rakishly handsome but somewhat careless and apt to be caught. Like Holmes, he had an able assistant, an old school chum, Harry “Bunny” Manders.
Hungerford has turned these tales into a comic farce for three actors. The Fringe production, directed by Elizabeth Martin in a third-floor studio space at Elementz (1100 Race St.), features Mark Maccora as Raffles, Justin McCombs as Bunny and Miranda McGee as “The Rest of London.” (McCombs and McGee are members of the acting company at Cincinnati Shakespeare.)
Hungerford’s script is laced with lots of sexual double-entendres, especially implying Bunny’s yearning for Raffles, who recruits him as his assistant after a feckless suicide attempt. Maccora’s Raffles ignores Bunny’s advances, but his behavior encourages them. As the clueless Bunny, McComb still manages to keep Raffles out of numerous scrapes. He also serves as the show’s narrator, professing his undying admiration and devotion to “the finest gentleman thief the world has ever known.” McGee, playing numerous characters with quick changes of costumes and an array of sock puppets, provides much of the humor. She often must become a new character or quickly change back and forth in plain view, without the assistance of a dresser. That means she is often half-costumed, evoking much hilarity as she ranges through multiple British, Scottish and Australian accents to evoke an endless cast of oddballs.
Being that this is the Fringe, the action of A. J. Raffles is played with much self-aware wink-wink and nudge-nudge to the audience. Maccora sometimes comes across as a sort of supercilious Victorian James Bond, steely-eyed and affectedly smoking cigarettes; several times he rips open his shirt to reveal a hairy, masculine chest. And when he divests himself of more clothing, well, let’s just say it’s a memorable comic moment.
Unfortunately, Maccora was occasionally grasping for lines (reading from a notebook) on opening night, making amusing remarks about not being a Shakespearean actor. In fact, the show has so much hamming from all the actors that, at 70 minutes, I found it a tad repetitious and tedious. Nevertheless, on opening night the friendly audience yukked it up and had a great time with the energetic, stylized comedy.
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE: 7 p.m. June 1 and 7 p.m. June 2 at Elementz. Find more of CityBeat's ongoing 2013 Cincy Fringe Festival coverage, including performance reviews, commentary and venue details, here.