Send in the Clowns
Most of the satire in Fifty Foot Penguin's premiere of The Great Americ'n Play is not funny, but I don't mean that as a complaint. Good satire is rarely funny. It is bitter and corrosive, a poisonous mixture of bile and spite. When satire works it can only hope to produce gasps of horror and a few uneasy titters. So the problem with local playwright Matt Sciple's script is not that it doesn't generate laughs--quite the opposite, as the play boasts a good number of belly laughs. The problem is that the script is overloaded with satire: The production is laden down with the stuff.
Sciple, a dramaturg at Park Square, as well as an actor and director, tells the story of a television clown who runs for president, which is a fine, funny premise. This is particularly true when the clown is played by Stan Peal, who does the impossible: He creates an unctuous, neurotic, wildly funny clown who bears no resemblance to Krusty from The Simpsons, the comic archetype for clowns of dubious virtue. But Sciple hasn't stopped at the clown. His script includes criticisms of multinational corporations, television news, hand puppets, the cult of celebrity, our generation's vapid and childlike young men, and Pirandello-like moments when the characters realize they are in a play, discuss the fact, and then adjust the drama to fit their needs. (One character, in fact, purchases the production and offers stock options to the audience.)
This sort of all-consuming satiric sensibility can be enormously effective. Think of the film Putney Swope, in which director Robert Downey Sr.'s caustic take on Madison Avenue and Sixties race politics seeped out like cyanide in the ground water, destroying everything it touched. But Sciple's script is more like a freight train that is so overloaded as to require an hour of grinding the wheels and pouring sand on the tracks just to get it moving. Additionally, the train stops every five miles or so to pick up another satiric premise. The resulting rhythm is halting and frustrating: At the play's climax Sciple repeatedly interrupts the action with parodies of television commercials, leading me to want to call out that the train was almost in the station--for God's sakes, just let it stop.
Granted, satire is hard to attempt and impossible to master, and this production deserves credit not simply for attempting so much but also for succeeding so often. Actors Zach Curtis and Adam Fielitz, for example, play a duo of moronic young men--jobless, futureless creatures who kidnap the television clown because they are convinced that he has ruined his life --without resorting to obvious affectations of idiocy. Instead, they respond to the complexity of the play as stupid people always respond to complexity: They furrow their brows and flash disbelieving smiles, certain that somebody is putting them on. This pair doesn't simply misunderstand their world; they miss most of it, blind to even their own stupidity. Curtis fumbles at creating sentences longer than a few monosyllabic words, while Fielitz gapes absently. We find ourselves rooting for these dunces while knowing we should be doing the opposite.
The single act of thoughtless bravado these characters commit, storming a sound stage with squirt guns and seizing a clown, sets the play in motion. But from that moment on they are pawns of the comedy, oblivious to the fact that their attempt to assert their free will has, in fact, terminated their ability to control their own lives. Never mind the parody commercials and Pirandello references--these mindless boys are the play's best satire, and they are appropriately perplexing.
Backstage at an opening night party for The Insatiate Countess, actor Kim Schultz (who plays the eponymous Countess) puffed out her cheeks trying to think of words to describe the script, a Jacobean monstrosity that originated with the perfectly unknown John Marston and then went through a dozen even-less-known rewriters. "It was bad," she said at last. "Really bad."
Again--amazingly--this is not a complaint. As director Julia Fischer explains in a press packet, previous scripts tackled by 15 Head--Fischer points to The Lady from the Sea and The Mountain Giants--had been "too 'finished' to tolerate much alteration." As a theater company that specializes in imaginative re-creations, crafting plays of sweeping motion and poetic visual qualities, they found themselves imposing their vision onto scripts that might have been better served by more straightforward adaptations. With The Insatiate Countess, the script's roughness and obscurity made it ideal for a radical revision. Had 15 Head staged Shakespeare as they do Marston--as though it were an all-night house party in some ancient Mongolian empire--critics might have thrown their chairs onto the stage.
No critic is going to balk at such treatment here, even when the play's nymphomaniacal lead character literally stomps over her husband's corpse to get to her next lover. And why should they? The best wisdom the original script offers in its rhymed couplets are such ugly platitudes as "She's chaste who none will have" and "They treasure pleasures best that fear not hell"--not exactly proverbs for the ages.
So 15 Head doesn't bother too much with the language. They dress in gorgeous oriental costumes and move around the stage with their faces frozen into masks. Jon Micheels Leiseth clomps around in high heels with a firm, fey smile; even without speaking he would be perfectly delightful as a foppish, cuckolded courtier. The characters dance to electronic music, seduce and then kill one another, and suffer tragically for their desires.
This is exactly what should happen in theater, and here we've been spared from the original script, which would have buried it all in static soliloquies. As it is, the audience comes away with an important dramatic lesson: Sometimes it is far better to stomp on a corpse than to drone on endlessly about the dead man.
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