Goodman Theatre Studio

Ordinarily, comparing a Shakespearean actor to a clown would be an insult, but I intend the highest praise when I say Fred Curchack is in the same league as Avner the Eccentric.

Maybe the comparison comes to mind because I saw them both in the Goodman Theatre Studio within a few weeks of each other, but I think the similarities go farther than that.

Both wear trademark costumes, for example. Avner wears a round red nose, baggy pants, and a derby; Curchack wears a battered top hat, coveralls, and a latex mask free of details–sort of a full-faced Phantom of the Opera mask.

Both adopt a stage persona that is disingenuous. Avner pretends to be clumsy when he’s actually a gifted acrobat; he pretends to be stupid when he’s actually sly; he pretends to be bashful when he’s actually quite aggressive with the audience.

Curchack pretends to be a burned-out actor who’s tired of doing his shtick for tiny audiences in midwestern studio theaters, but his show proves that he’s still beguiled by the magic of stagecraft.

Finally, both make astonishing use of familiar material. Avner juggles, walks a tightrope, pulls a ribbon out of his mouth, balances a ladder on his chin, talks through a kazoo, and squirts three streams of water from his mouth at the same time. The stunts are routine–anyone could do them with a little practice–but Avner finds a way to make them all hilarious. For his part, Curchack performs an amazing, unforgettable one-man interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

And Stuff as Dreams Are Made On is definitely an interpretation. Curchack portrays a character named Fred who is busting his butt as he tries to reproduce the highlights of what is considered Shakespeare’s farewell to theater. This is no reverent tribute to the bard, however. Curchack freely improvises on the text. For example, when Prospero, the duke of Milan, tells his daughter Miranda they’ve been living alone on an island for 12 years because his brother deposed him, she retorts, “That must’ve really pissed you off.” (Miranda, by the way, is played by a doll animated by Curchack’s gift for ventriloquism.) When Caliban, the monster born of the witch Sycorax, tries to molest Miranda, she screams at him, “You’re just an illiterate third-world son of a witch!”

Curchack deliberately stops the show at times to shatter the illusion and remind the audience that they’re merely watching a mope named Fred at work. While wearing the grotesque Kabuki-like mask of Caliban, Curchack attempts to rape Miranda, sticking hs long, bulbous nose between her legs until the audience starts to titter. Then he stops and stares at the audience. “Why are you looking at me like that?” he asks, sounding wounded. “It’s a valid interpretation.”

When he transforms Ariel’s song into a blues riff, strumming his guitar and strutting into the audience, Miranda calls out from the stage, “Fred, you’re violating the fourth wall.”

But violating that invisible wall that separates the performer from the audience is precisely what Curchack intends to do. He is calling attention to the illusions of stagecraft even as he revels in the magic. Curchack produces amazing effects with absurdly simple props–two disposable lighters, a couple of flashlights, a simple white scrim, a few masks, and his own face.

Into his belt he tucks a flashlight that points up at his face and then stretches his latex mask into grotesque expressions. He illuminates another mask by flicking his Bics alternately on either side of his face, occasionally producing a floating burst of flame. Going behind the scrim, he creates Ariel, the “airy spirit,” out of a ball of light cast by a flashlight, and then allows his own silhouette to grasp the ball, hold it, and even pop it into his mouth. He also creates enormous, looming shadows that are actually intimidating.

Fred keeps reminding the audience that he’s performing tricks. “C’mon, that’s what it’s all about,” he says after offering to produce some special effects. But then he proceeds to dazzle the audience with those tricks. Contrary to his stage persona, Curchack is no bumbler. He’s a powerful actor who embodies passions instead of mimicking their outward manifestations. Remarkably graceful and poised, with a voice as nimble and strong as his body, he conjures Prospero’s magic even as he pretends to make fun of it.

Curchack could have worked his magic on any of Shakespeare’s plays, but The Tempest was no random choice. Prospero, like a playwright, creates illusions that move and transform those who behold them.

But I’m sure this sounds much too heavy for Fred, who insists he’s just a working stiff trying to make a buck off the techniques he learned in acting school. Like Avner, Curchack knowingly amplifies his powers by pretending they are trifles, and on the surface they are. Both performers specialize in cheap theatrics.

But with their simple tricks, both Avner and Curchack evoke laugher, generate suspense, and lift people out of themselves for a while. There is something magical about that. Fred might sneer at such a sentiment, but Curchack certainly knows what it means.