Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Man Who Laughs

[post 325]

There have been lots of modern movies made in the style of 1920s silents, many of them quite good, but only a smattering of theatre productions attempt to recreate that aesthetic on stage in front of a live audience. In fact, it makes no sense at all, since the time and space constraints of the proscenium preclude many of the crowd-pleasing elements we associate with silent film....

But as Galileo said, "and yet it moves." And, in the case of The Man Who Laughs, a "live silent film for the stage" by New York's Stolen Chair Theatre Company, it moves and works quite well indeed.

The 1928 film
This revival of their well-received 2005 production takes as its source not a silent film comedy, but Victor Hugo's melodramatic novel, The Man Who Laughs (1869), which was in fact made into a silent film in 1909 (France), in 1921 (Germany), and in 1928 (U.S.A.), though the latter did have a synchronized audio track of music and sound effects.  There have been at least three very loosely adapted sound versions, the most recent released a mere two months ago and co-starring tax-evader Gerard Depardieu.
"L'Homme Qui Rit" (2012)

In one long, run-on sentence: it's the story of a boy who has his face violently disfigured into a permanent smile and who ends up touring  the hinterlands in a caravan with a traveling showman (think Anthony Quinn in La Strada, only sweet), where his freakish appearance gets laughs and draws crowds, but what he really wants is be taken seriously and, well, we all know that's not gonna work out in the end, don't we? (Take that, my 6th-grade teacher!) Did I mention it's a melodrama?
Photo by Carrie Leonard

But the story is oddly compelling, which is why there are those six movies. In terms of clowning, it mines the popular image (cliché?) of the clown as a misunderstood soul who yearns to play Hamlet (or in this case, Othello). Indeed, haven't many highly successful comedians been eager to take on ultra-serious acting roles late in their careers? Think Charlie Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux), Danny Kaye (Skokie), Art Carney (Harry & Tonto), Jackie Gleason (The Hustler), Milton Berle (numerous tv dramas), and Jerry Lewis (King of Comedy)— not to mention Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, and Bill Irwin.

Photo by Carrie Leonard
In terms of physical comedy, the silent acting of course calls for heightened precision and a movement vocabulary that is expressive without being overly stiff. The challenges, I am happy to report, are well met in this production. The performers are up to the task, and Dave Droxler in the title role makes full use of his strong clown background and, in a brilliant marionette sequence, his fluid movement skills.

What I was most struck by, however, was how well all of the elements came together, from the acting, to the musicianship of composer/pianist Eugene Ma, to the spot-on grayscale visual design (sets by Michael Minahan, costumes by Julie Schworm, lighting by Daniel Winters, makeup by Jaclyn Schaefer), to the flowing narrative and witty title cards of playwright Kiran Rikhye, all melded into a convincing whole by director Jon Stancato. Art is in the details, and here attention was devoted to every little moment.

Here's a  Jim Moore video interview with director Jon Stancato and lead actor Dave Droxler, from Jim's fantastic blog, Vaude Visuals:

 And here's a review of the production by Ashley Griffin, our musical theatre guest poster, who first alerted me to the show and brought me along on opening night, thank you very much.

The show plays through February 24th. Click here for ticket information.

Click here to watch the 1928 silent film on youTube in 11 installments. Or rent it from Netflix...

Update:  Click here for the NY Times review.

1 comment:

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