Lunatics & Actors
Reviewed by Jenny Lower
The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
Through May 28
Lunatics & Actors, the latest world premiere by Jeremy Aluma’s clowning troupe Four Clowns, is less a fixed narrative than a series of funny, unpredictable, and menacing vignettes that excavate the distinction between creative performance and insanity. Playwright David Bridel, dean of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, has crafted a meta-theatrical meditation that perhaps inevitably turns to Hamlet as it considers the origin of human emotion and its authentic portrayal onstage.
Our guide in this line of inquiry is Dr. Duchenne de Boulogne (Thaddeus Shafer), a real-life mid-nineteenth century doctor who used electroshock therapy to map the facial expressions of his subjects (children, vagrants, and actors), then documented his efforts in a collection of ghoulish photographs. His theatrical counterpart gloats to the audience that he can “make anybody feel anything,” before introducing his brain-fried research subjects, Bon-Bon (Tyler Bremer), Fifi (Alexis Jones), and Pepe (Andrew Eldredge), who trot in when Duchenne beckons trussed up like Christmas hams.
What unfolds next is best experienced with as limited preparation as possible, but suffice to say that Four Clowns engages in its typical tactic of breaking the fourth wall, albeit with a decidedly darker end game in mind. Shafer, who stepped into the role a couple weeks before opening, proves himself an adept comic improviser, delivering deflating barbs to audience volunteers in a courteous French-Germanic accent. The triumvirate of slack-jawed “clowns,” meanwhile, turn both transgressive and aggressive, human lab rats in an experiment that becomes progressively more disturbing.
Staged in a half-finished industrial labyrinth designed by Fred Kinney with stark, disorienting lighting by Azra King-Abadi, the play forces us to examine theater itself as a kind of willful, collective lunacy. Under Aluma’s fluid direction, the play overcomes early unevenness to deepen into a powerful exploration of its essential themes. Shafer has distinguished himself portraying characters whose failings threaten to break through the veil of control. Though that capacity receives more limited range here, his Duchenne locates the heart of darkness in Bridel’s imagination. Among the clowns, Jones in particular conveys meaningful pathos as Fifi. The production climaxes with an unconventional, evocative staging of Hamlet, an artistic impression whose impact would be even stronger undissipated by the brief denouement that follows.
The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., downtown; through May 28 (see website for performance schedule.) (562) 508-1788; www.fourclowns.org. Running time: 75 to 80 minutes with no intermission