by Geoff Hoff~
The play He Who Gets Slapped was written by Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev in the early 1900s. The original play was about a down-on-his-luck intellectual who shows up in the anti-room of a run down French circus, insinuates himself into the ranks of the clowns and becomes “He Who Gets Slapped.” That play is reportedly mystical, metaphorical, a tragic clown show replete with romantic triangles, professional jealousies and guns. It is a contemplation of fate.
The main character, know only as HE, is an intellectual who’s life work was stolen, trivialized and popularized by a rival, who also took his wife. Because life has continually slapped him and made him a clown, his reaction to his world crumbling is to become an actual clown in the rundown circus, the clown who is the victim of all the slapstick. His routine is to be constantly slapped by the other clowns while giving an intellectual lecture. This schtick becomes a hit with the audiences, right alongside the lion taming act and the bareback horse riders.
Pavel Cerny seems a charming gentleman. He wrote, produced and directed Circus Welt, which is “freely adapted” from He Who Gets Slapped. The night I saw the play, Mr. Pavel also took tickets, ran the lights and made a small speech at the beginning of the play regarding why he rewrote the original and reminding the audience to turn off their cell phones. He said he saw the play as a young man and it stuck with him. He’d always wanted to revive it, but when he recently re-read it, it was impossibly dense and didactic. He still liked the idea of a play taking place entirely in the dressing room of a circus, so he took the ideas and characters and wrote his own play.
Circus Welt moves the action from Russia to Germany and the time from the turn of the last century to the moment when Hitler was just coming to power. It also takes the play about a man who has become quite laterally a whipping boy clown into a show about a man who needs to be anonymous in order to avoid teaching the mythology of the Third Reich. Mr. Carny turns the cast from the original into a litany of the Those Who Fear the Nazis. There is the angry-young-man Communist, the intellectual, the Jew who is pretending not to be a Jew, the homosexual couple and a new archetype for these plays, the black man who escaped the repression of the United States only to become repressed in Germany. (In this case, a clown who uses whiteface.) There are also, of course, those many who think that, as long as they keep to themselves the Nazis will just go away.
On the other side of the political divide, there is the requisite head of the local SA Stormtroopers , the down on his fortunes Italian count who wants to get in good with the Nazis, his beautiful daughter who everyone is in love with including said SA commander, and various Nazi soldiers.
The script of the play itself is interesting, although the symbolism of exactly why the man chose to be a clown, and specifically one who gets slapped, is almost lost in this adaptation. The specifics of the man who stole his work are there, but seem almost an afterthought. The convention of the gaggle of circus clowns becoming a sort of Greek Chorus is also an interesting one (not new, it was used in Max Frisch’s The Fire Bugs — also a darkly comic look at Nazi Germany — and elsewhere) wherein the clowns relate the current history and events of Germany and the world through darkly humorous interludes in front of the curtain. Also, the political ruminations of the play seem a little painted on to the melodrama of it. Or, perhaps, the melodrama seems painted on to the political aspects.
Circus Welt has already been translated into Czech and German and has had staged readings performed at the National Theatre in London and the First Stage and Sacred Fools in Los Angeles, but this is the first full production of it.
The evening started well with clowns entertaining the audience in the lobby and on the sidewalk in front of the theatre. The pre-show music was rousing, a combination of martial and circus orchestrations, much of it Kurt Weill compositions which is a fitting reference for both the time and setting of the play. The staging itself, however, had some problems. With two exceptions, the clowns, although earnest and hard working, were fairly obviously only recently coached (by Clown Choreographer Matthew Morgan) in the art of clowning. Their juggling was a little off, their timing and shenanigans were a little too conscious. All of them would and could be wonderful physical performers, but aren’t quite yet. It puzzles me that, with The Los Angeles Clown School just down the road, Mr. Pavel was not able to find some journeymen clowns who had more experience. The two exceptions are Jeff Williams as Jackson, the black man in white face (although his makeup was more silver than white) and (I imagine, it is hard to tell which clown was which by the program) Sam Rhodes.
The “slapstick” — the slapping of HE and other clowns — was obviously the stage trick of one actor hitting the other actor’s hand and the second actor jerking his head aside as if he had just been slapped. It is possible that this was a conscious choice in order to let the audience in to the technique. However, in a “real” fight in the final act, this same technique was used in such a way that the moment meant to be shocking became almost laughable.
One standout performance is by Jashua Grenrock as HE. With a shaky start, more, I think, due to the shortcomings of the script, he embodied the sad, lovelorn clown admirably. John Moskal as Bricke, the “Poppa” of the circus who just wants to take care of his people and stay out of the real world, was also quite good. Kurt Hargan as Count Mancini was effective as was Stephanie T. Keefer as Maria, the lion tamer and common-law wife of Bricke. The rest of the cast was adequate.
The costumes, by Shayla Kundera, were quite wonderful, easily showing the difference between the down on his luck Mancini and a well-do-do gentleman who shows up looking for redemption from HE and giving us great glimpses of the character of the various circus folk and the hangers on. And it is a large cast to costume, the announcement for the productions touts “20 actors, 50 costumes, 6 clowns, 6 Nazi Stormtroopers” as well as “several love affairs, laughter and tears.” Indeed.
The set, by Walter Ulasinski, was utilitarian; several back curtains on pull strings and a large canvas wall in front of which was the long makeup table for the performers and on the other side of which, supposedly, was the main circus performance area.
Besides the pre-show and intermission music, the sound design by Chris Doane was wholly inadequate. The noise from the circus, which is going on just beyond the dressing room during most of the play, only shows up exactly when it’s needed to move the story on stage forward, then disappears as soon as the immediate queue is over.
The rest of the cast include Lee Biolos, Stephan Bohemier, Ed Brigadier, Dijanne Cornell, Adam Christopher, Tanya Goott, Adam Hale, Justin Hertner, Patrick Koffel, Doug Oliphant, Dustin Saied, Edwin Simon, and Al Simmons.
Circus Welt plays Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 until February 14.
The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oakes, CA 91423, between Woodman and Fountain.
Tickets are $25.00, $15.00 for students and seniors with ID.
Reservations on-line at www.theatermania.com or at (866) 811-4000 (Theatermania)