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Ex-Monty Python star Terry Jones blends machines, opera in new show

Terry Jones poses with a contraption used on stage in his opera
Terry Jones poses with a contraption used on stage in his opera "Evil Machines" at the Sao Luis theater in Lisbon in December. The former Monty Python comedian is in rehearsals for the world premiere of "Evil Machines" in January that Jones co-wrote and is directing. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Barry Hatton Associated Press

Terry Jones giggles as he describes his latest project: vacuum cleaners, dryers and parking meters singing opera on stage.

The Monty Python alumnus and an all-Portuguese cast are rehearsing for Saturday’s world premiere in Lisbon of “Evil Machines.” Jones co-wrote the libretto and is directing.

To make the author’s vision real, the singers climb into elaborate costumes, including one that creates a 15-foot-tall vacuum cleaner.

“I just thought it would be great fun to have all these machines singing,” Jones said after a recent rehearsal at Lisbon’s Sao Luis theater, adding with mischievous glee: “It’s something you’ve never seen before.”

The show captures some of the absurdity that was the hallmark of the British comedy troupe Jones co-founded. Almost 40 years on, he retains that offbeat sense of humor.

In one chanted line the cast confides: “There’s no one meaner than a vacuum cleaner.” Elsewhere they rage: “Parking meters, parking meters, parking meters from hell!”

At a recent rehearsal, Jones repeatedly leapt from his chair on the side of a room of bare floorboards and big windows to explain stage directions. Soft-spoken, in black trousers and a black open-necked shirt, he acted out the moves he had imagined.

The good-humored cast – all trained opera singers – exchanged comments in English and Portuguese before the grand piano picked up again.

“They’re all very willing,” Jones said. “I was worried that opera singers wouldn’t want to act but they’re all getting into the spirit of it.”

The Lisbon project follows a collaboration last year when Portuguese composer Luis Tinoco set some of Jones’ children’s stories to music using a 60-piece orchestra. The concerts in the Portuguese capital were a success, and Jones turned his collection of short stories into a libretto for a new production.

He couldn’t imagine how his fantasy might take shape – until he ended up directing it.

“I said, ‘How are you going to do this?’ I thought that was their problem, but then they said, ‘Would you like to direct it?’ I thought, ‘Hmm, I can’t say no.’ “

The original Monty Python show – featuring Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin – ran on the BBC from 1969 to 1974. Jones often appeared in drag as a shrill middle-aged woman or as an indignant British gent in a bowler hat.

Though not one of the most immediately recognizable Pythons, Jones’s fame endures in Portugal. He recently went to see a Portuguese production in Lisbon of the troupe’s most famous sketches. In the second month of its run, it was playing to 600-seat sell-outs.

“I thought it was really good fun,” Jones said of the show – though he doesn’t speak Portuguese and admits he didn’t recognize a couple of the sketches.

Oxford-educated Jones, 65, is not only an actor, comedian, writer and director. He also pens newspaper articles on political issues and has written and presented medieval history documentaries for the BBC.

He recently went on a lecture tour of the United States to give his radical new appraisal of England’s King Richard II.

Jones expects to keep pursuing that wide range of interests – not daring to dream that “Evil Machines” could match the success of the Broadway hit “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” a Tony-winning musical based on the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

“I don’t think it’s quite got the popular appeal of ‘Spamalot,’ ” he concedes.

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