Old Clown Wanted

Trap Door Theatre

America may be the Western country least receptive to absurdism, the post-World War II European literary movement that holds the universe is indifferent to human actions no matter how noble, well-intentioned, or pathetic. For Americans all actions serve a purpose, but especially those that increase our net worth; with the aid of pop psychology and sufficient profits, the universe will smile on us in perpetuity. And given Americans’ mania for novelty, how important can a 50-year-old art movement be anyway?

Yet absurdism is alive and well in Europe, being carried on in part by its most popular, prolific current proponent, Matei Visniec. Born in Romania and given political asylum in France in 1987, Visniec didn’t receive his American premiere until 2004, nearly 30 years after he wrote his first play. Of course, his work wasn’t shown in Romania until its liberation in 1989, when he quickly became the most frequently produced playwright in his home country: though he’d written 20 scripts by then, they’d all been banned. When Old Clown Wanted premiered at the Biennale Bonn in 1992, it put Visniec on the international map: since then it’s been performed in at least a dozen countries. It still wasn’t produced in the States until July 2004, when the New Jersey Repertory Company gave it its U.S. premiere under Gregory A. Fortner’s direction. Now Trap Door Theatre offers its production, also staged by Fortner.

It opened November 18 but reopens this week after a brief hiatus for performances at New York’s “Act French” festival.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of Old Clown Wanted–a sweet but disturbing portrait of three aging out-of-work performers–in Trap Door’s intelligent, well-paced production. Waiting in a barren, windowless anteroom to audition for one spot with an unnamed circus troupe are the Stan Laurel-esque Niccolo, his bullying former friend Filippo, and their Machiavellian mentor Peppino. In an obvious homage to Beckett’s seminal work of absurdist theater, Waiting for Godot, the clowns spend most of their time puffing themselves up and belittling one another. But unlike Beckett, Visniec makes it clear that his characters have been deeply injured by their obsolescence, both professional and existential. Each drags around a suitcase stuffed with broken-down props through which he can relive his glory days–although the unsophisticated, unimaginative routines they enact for one another suggest they never worked much beyond the birthday-and-bar-mitzvah circuit. (“No one laughs at somersaults anymore,” Niccolo laments.) However questionable their talent, though, these clowns once felt loved in their profession. Now they’re left to snipe at one another while clutching at an impersonal crumb tossed them by a prospective employer who can’t be bothered to show up for the audition–if he exists at all.

Fortner’s three actors take an aptly understated approach, emphasizing the weariness and looming paralysis of these lost souls. Circus-Szalewski as Niccolo, John Gray as Filippo, and Bob Wilson as Peppino are all appealing performers–and psychologically nimble enough to bounce convincingly through Visniec’s erratic, sometimes surreal dialogue: the clowns express undying love for one another one moment, for example, and limitless contempt the next. Fortner exploits the lyricism in Alison Sinclair’s slightly arch translation, turning this 90-minute show into a subtle, extended clown routine in which the three seem to be trapped unawares. The production’s gentle stylization, combined with Ewelina Dobiesz’s bare-bones set design, suspends the action in a void, which gives the play a metaphorical resonance. And though the performances are not without emotional nuance, the actors don’t fully embody their characters: it’s as if they were asking the audience to pretend along with them rather than believe wholeheartedly in the stage reality.

Richard Norwood’s lighting design emphasizes the critical distance the actors maintain from their roles. Banks of fluorescent tubes have been installed for this show, and most of the time they mercilessly illuminate every unattractive nook on the rudimentary stage (as well as most of the audience). But on the few occasions when a clown delivers a monologue, the fluorescents snap off to leave the actor in a pool of warm, self-consciously “nostalgic” light. When the monologue is over, the fluorescents flicker back on, as though the lights were being run by a stern third-grade teacher who wanted everyone to get back to work.

Trap Door’s distancing devices may alienate viewers who attend theater primarily to be moved: in general this production speaks more to the mind than the heart. It’s as though Fortner would rather the audience reflect on this odd little play than get caught up in it. But that distance can make the evening more poignant, as audience members have the time and space to ruminate. I thought about how the clownish, playful parts of ourselves do fall into obsolescence. If, as Noel Coward says, the most we have is a talent to amuse, it seems our best selves will wither.

When: Reopen 12/8, 8 PM. Through 1/14: Thu-Sat 8 PM.

Where: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland

Price: $20, two for one Thu

Info: 773-384-0494

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