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Circus Welt at Whitefire Theatre

Posted by Geoff Hoff on Jan 29th, 2010 and filed under Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

by Geoff Hoff~

circus-weltThe 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)

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3 Responses for “Circus Welt at Whitefire Theatre”

  1. [...] on to the melodrama of it. Or, perhaps, the melodrama seems painted on to the political aspects. Geoff Hoff – LA Theatre Review Filed under review Tags: backstage, daryl h. miller, edge los angeles, geoff hoff, gwen hardin, [...]

  2. Pavel Cerny says:

    I am the author and director of the above stage production and I would like to post a few comments. First of all let me state that I firmly believe in a critics right to have any opinion of my stage productions. What bothered me here was the lack of any professionality and informed writing. Let me give you just a few examples.
    To start with, Mr.Hoff writes that I am a “charming gentlman”. What does this mean and why is that mentioned in the review? I know of many famous great artists who were complete a*holes. Next the critic mentiones that I ran the lights for the show. If he paid any attention he would have seen me sitting a few seats away from him throughout the evening. We are not rich but we can still afford a stage manager and light and sound operator. Next comes a comment that I asked the audiences to turn off their phones. Is this part of his criticism? I am a director in LA theater for 35 years and I have never see anything similar mentioned in a review. ALL the theaters from the smallest one to Staples do the same thing every night.
    Then comes a claim that the original play He Who Gets Slapped takes place in Russia. WRONG! If Mr. Hoff just bothered to google it, he would have found out that it takes place in the pre WWI.France. He also mentiones that the “symbolism why the man wants to become a clown” was lost. Again, if he read the play he would have noticed that except for two or three added words I have used word by word the explanation from the Andreyev play. If you do not know the facts, do not use them.
    In a following comment the critic says that the clowns were only recently coached and should have gone to the Clown School down the street. (Does he mean the improv group LA Connection?) Actually all three of my Chorus of Clown members have many years of clown education and professional experience. They also underwent 8 weeks of preparation with the great clown Matthew Morgan. They get applause on open stage several times during each show.
    Next comes a complaint that the clowns used only pretend slapstick slaps and also the fight scene was only pretend. 1) Clowns always use only pretend slaps. This tradition goes back at least for the 400 years of the Comedia dell’Arte and possibly all the way to Old Greece and Rome. 2) DId he really want us to kick the actors in their stomach and loins for real? Would he like to volunteer to be the one being kicked? Maybe “He Who Gets Kicked”?
    And just to end this tirade: Geoff Hoff writes that the production is playing at the Wildfire Theatre while we are playing at the Whitefire Theatre.
    Once again it is not the critiic’s opinions or even the meanspiritednes of the review that I am protesting. It is the lack or professionality and intelligence.
    This publication claims that they screen each new critic and ask for samples of writing. Boy did this one squeeze through the crack.
    Please come see CIRCUS WELT. It is playing just for a few more weeks. I promisse you that it will be a highlight of you theater going experience this year or any year.

  3. Geoff says:

    Mr. Cerny,

    Thank you for your comments. I love dialogue and am glad you decided to engage in one. I do have some thoughts about your comments, of course. In a few places I actually agree with you and in a few places you took as criticism something that was not meant as such.

    I mentioned you were charming because you charmed me, both in the lobby and with your introduction. You are right, I should have noticed that you were sitting in the audience, not running the lights. I apologize to you and to our readers.

    As for the comment about you asking the audience to turn of the cell phones, this was not a criticism at all. I was just pointing out that you used that moment that most theatres use to get the electronics handled to also elaborate on why you had written the play. Perhaps I could have made that connection more clear.

    Yes, you are right again, the original takes place in France, which I actually knew. It was written by a Russian, it did not take place in Russia. Again, I apologize for that incorrect statement and thank you for pointing it out to me and our readers.

    The big thing however, was the point about the symbolism of why HE decides to become a clown, and one who gets slapped. Yes, you left the dialogue with his rival in tact. However, the reason, specifically, in the original, that HE joins the circus and why he decides getting slapped will be his bit, is specifically that life has beaten him and made him a clown. In your adaptation, he joins the circus precisely because he no longer wants to (or, actually never wanted to) teach the propaganda of the Third Reich. It therefore becomes a little bit puzzling that he decides that being slapped will be his thing.

    Of course, clowns only use pretend slaps. No, I don’t expect anyone on stage to get hurt. What I said was they were obviously pretend slaps. I have both seen and been in plays with very safe fight choreography that was very convincing, with similar types of slaps in them, but the audience did not know they were “pretend”. It may have been a trick of my seat or a function of a single performance, but during the show I saw, the slaps were obviously several inches from the people’s faces.

    Yes, there was a typo in the final mention of the name of the theatre. It has been corrected. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. We are always chagrined when a typo, especially as blatant as that, gets through. I have said in the past that we strive to be accurate, that mistakes will get through and that I dearly hope we will correct any mistake we make once we are made aware of it. I, personally, have been making stupid mistakes a lot, lately. And as I’m the editor of LATR, there isn’t anyone to slap me before something gets posted when I do.

    I do not think my review was mean spirited. I’m sorry you did. Again, thank you for bringing your thoughts to the conversation.

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