Send in the Clowns

Please don't ask me to find out how many friars can fit in the confessional booth

Please don't ask me to find out how many friars can fit in the confessional booth

When Peter Barnes's Red Noses was first staged in 1985, audiences took it as an allegory about the inequities of the British class system. Its setting in medieval France during the bubonic plague, however, inspired later viewers to interpret the show through the prism of AIDS. The interpretation staged by Ten Thousand Things is intensely emotional, yet it's hard to say what director Larissa Kokernot means to say through the material.

The action begins with Father Flote (Lee Mark Nelson), a priest in the throes of despair over his inability to help his alarmingly shrinking flock. After he is blessed, or afflicted, with a series of what can only be called holy spasms, he gains the insight that the Lord's work can best be accomplished by spreading the transcendent gift of laughter to the fearful and dying. On goes the red nose of a clown, and Flote's career as a comedian begins.

The seven actors in this production tackle 28 roles, sometimes changing character in mid-scene. It is to Kokernot's credit that this wandering script is generally approachable, and to the cast's that the show is frequently very funny. Mark Nelson veers wildly between heavy gravity and outright shtick in his portrayal of the priest, who is joined by an oddball assortment including Alayne Hopkins's debauched nun and Kris Nelson's bell-bedecked funnyman.

A dour, humorless priest (Dylan Fresco) takes on the assignment of tracking Flote's progress for their superiors, and eventually both fathers receive a summon from Il Papa—Pope Clement VI (Kate Eifrig). Eifrig does a nice take on Clement's cynical pragmatism, and delivers the edict that Flote's clowning should serve the purposes of pacifying the people during their duress. Celebration follows, and laughter is ascendant.

Matters prove far trickier after the intermission. The plague lifts, the old power structure settles back into place, and Clement sets about eliminating two popular factions among the commoners: the self-flagellants and the revolutionaries. Flote, who had cast his lot with them both in an earlier burst of sunny possibility, finds himself in an untenable position.

Barnes's script is a mixture of unexpected punch lines, bursts of surprising lyricism, and unashamedly action-stopping detours into the realms of the political and metaphysical. It describes a sprawling canvas of merchants, whores, soldiers, killers, the handicapped, and the inconsolable. What he seems to be after is an examination of the opposition between hope and despair, innocence and experience, purity and corruption. Yet a sense of tedium sets in here, and ultimately this production sags.

By the second hour we have drifted into the territory of the admirable but not particularly enjoyable. One sequence involves a pointless act of betrayal, with the bloodthirsty Rochfort (Ron Menzel) knifing a comrade (Eifrig again), who performs in Flote's show. (He dies in a moment of maudlin sentimentality.) Finally, old Clement is wheeled out for the final showdown, and all that came before is recast in a deeply abstract and ambiguous light.

Wily old Clement turns out to be the philosophical cousin of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov: He knows the real thing (a holy man) when he sees it, but he also knows there's no place for one in the world he rules. Eifrig delivers a final, disturbing soliloquy that shifts all that came before into a matter of power, perception, and control. One is left with a sense that this work, for all its unsatisfying raggedness, at least comes around to a most provocative notion. While art functions as a metaphor for reality, the show suggests, mundane reality itself can either be a metaphor for deeper truths—or else be a tool to serve the interests of power. Put another way, it's fine to joke until one gets too close to the truth.