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British playwright Peter Barnes set Red Noses in the worst of times, period: his darkly comic social satire, which opens next week at the Goodman Theatre, takes place in the midst of the Black Plague. By 1348, the time of the play, Europe had lost a third of its population to the disease.

Goodman dramaturge Tom Creamer says, “People thought it was the end of the world. There were three kinds of plague: bubonic plague, which involved buboes–dark, grossly infected glands; pneumonic, where lungs were infected and every time you coughed you were spraying plague bacilli on people; and septicemic, which affected the bloodstream directly. You could catch it and literally be dead by morning. Parents were abandoning children when they became sick. Villages would try to isolate it by burning down a house with the occupants in it.” Preventive measures abounded, and of course none of them worked. People were advised to avoid olive oil, fat meat, and sex, all thought to disturb the balance of the humors. Or they were advised to inhale the stench from a latrine, since the noxious odor would repel the “plague worms” flying about. Snuff, which causes sneezing, became popular as a way of expelling “poisonous atoms.”

Into this nightmarish landscape, Barnes thrusts Father Flote, a fictitious priest based in fact: an actual company of monks, the Fools of Arrau, toured plague-ridden France in the 14th century. At the play’s outset, Flote has a vision compelling him to form a troupe, the Red Noses of Auxerre: “We’ll sing, dance, and tell funny tales,” Flote proclaims, “for man can be moved by joy as well as tears.”

Seattle director Jeff Steitzer is a natural for this unlikely comedy: “There is an easily discernible ‘Seattle style,'” he says. “Every year we do an outdoor show in the park, maybe some old melodrama found in the archives, or something the actors throw together, like The Thing That Came From Way Out There. And we do it very broad, heavily influenced by cartoons, TV, the Three Stooges, all the things we’ve grown up with. If Chicago’s style at theaters like Steppenwolf or Remains is defined by a certain galvanic realism, emotionally based, we in Seattle are a bunch of zanies. We’re wacky, fairly cynical, and do wonderfully trivial work.”

At a recent rehearsal, actors warm up for their roles. Several have had to learn new skills. B.J. Jones, for his role as a disillusioned nobleman who joins the Red Noses, has taught himself to juggle. Michael Tezla, who hasn’t hazarded stilts since he was a Boy Scout, has had to revive the talent: his character walks on stilts to avoid contact with the plague-infected corpses strewn on the ground. Ray Toler and Bruce Turk, with the help of a diligent choreographer, are figuring out how to play one-legged tap dancers.

The actors quiet down as Steitzer begins rehearsing a scene involving the Red Noses’ first public performance, an unlikely blend of morality play and vaudeville revue. Richard Riehle, one of Steitzer’s favorite Seattle actors, puts a comic spin on his Everyman character. The cornball jokes are told with innocent elan. Honks, whistles, and other sound effects generated by five-and-dime noisemakers are used to amplify the slaps, pokes, and goosings delivered by the Red Nose actors harassing “Death.” The motley Red Nose ensemble includes a stuttering script boy and a drummer with a twitch.

Steitzer, roly-poly but surprisingly graceful, continually wades into the fray, blocking, demonstrating, cajoling, taking suggestions from the actors. “Boss,” says Jones, “since we all have flagons, can we do a spit take?” Steitzer chuckles, “A ‘spit take?'” “Yeah, you know–‘this is death?'” and Jones sprays his mouthful of ale all over at the appearance of preposterous, bumbling Death. “Yeah, that’s good. Keep it,” Steitzer replies. After fine-tuning the shtick and orchestrating the crowd’s reactions, Steitzer calls for a final run-through of the scene. Crew and bystanders are laughing.

Taking a break, Steitzer talks about the curious mingling of humor and disaster in Barnes’s script. “Certainly, if you were a plague victim you might not think it’s funny. But Bernie Sahlins said something the other night about comedy: it’s a way of taking control by turning the things you fear into an object of ridicule. By making the whole personification of death ridiculous, you’re making it more manageable.”

In fact, lately Steitzer has been less satisfied with the self-proclaimed “triviality” of his earlier work, and finds himself going through some of the same changes experienced by Father Flote. As the play progresses, the Red Noses start doing harder-hitting skits, to the consternation of the Church and others of the powers that be. Steitzer says, “Some of us, as we grow older, face the same dilemmas as Flote’s troupe. In our ‘dotage,’ we want to address the issues and make some kind of statement. I know from my previous experience, people still want meringue. When you do something light and fluffy, it’s met with great approval. But Barnes is saying it’s not enough to laugh, and I think he’s right. You have to find a way to change the world, one that’s going to encompass all forms of rebellion . . . but you must approach the task with humor.”

Steitzer continues, “In Red Noses, the exchange of money replaces God, and it’s a very cruel way to live. The world at the end of the play is the world we’ve inherited. What we’ve seen during Reagan’s hellacious term is a growth of insensitivity to the suffering around us. There’s a turn away from humanism that I find terribly depressing and really frightening. The job for us in the theater, I suppose, is to scratch the wound.”

Red Noses opens October 5 for a run through October 31 (previews tonight through October 4) at the Goodman, 200 S. Columbus Drive. Ticket information at 443-3800.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.