“What is death? Like love, nobody knows.”
Performers doing cartwheels, clowns playing kazoos, and overhead strips of striped canvas and strings of colorful lights transport you into the world of the Big Top in the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s production of the 1914 Russian classic HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. But lurking behind the high-spirited façade is the darkness and tragedy of lost souls who ran away to join the circus, only to find more of the same, in Walter Wykes’ 2007 adaptation of Leonid Andreyev’s unsettling story of unrequited love, death-defying thrills, sardonic laughs, and inescapable fate played out in the backstage of a main tent in early 20th-century France.
Ross Beschler delivers a haunting portrayal of the eponymous He, conveying the depths of the sad clown’s emotional distress through guarded speech, unnerving laughter, and expressive mime. Also excellent is Brian McCann, equal parts laughable and sleazy as the conniving money-grubber Count Mancini. Determined to marry off his daughter–the beautiful bareback rider Consuelo (Isabella Fehlandt)–to the highest bidder, he brokers her engagement to The Baron Regnard (Nathan Foley), whose title and riches have brought him no true happiness, self-worth, or fulfillment.
Annette Kaplafta captures the unbridled passion and unhinged behavior of the self-destructive whip-cracking lion tamer Xena, in love with Bezano (Ben Grinberg), who is also the object of Consuelo’s affection, just as He covets her. Terry Brennan doubles as the clown Jackson, who will do anything to get the big laughs, and The Stranger, who stops at nothing to get what he wants. Rounding out the cast are Bob Weick as the proprietor and ringmaster Papa Briquet, and the hilarious Josh Totora and Andalyn Young as the clowns Wally and Paulie.
To flesh-out the characters, their roles in the troupe, and their inter-relationships, director Damon Bonetti inserted routines of acrobatics, dance, juggling, hat tricks, and other traditional skills performed by the ensemble between Andreyev’s scripted scenes (choreographed by Brennan and developed in partnership with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, in consultation with Shana Kennedy), adding to the visual excitement and danger of the circus atmosphere. The ambience of the setting and the moods of the characters are further enhanced by live carnival-style strains of accordion, xylophone, piano, cymbals, drums, slide trombone, and piano, played by the cast under the music direction of Totora; the use of a real slapstick to augment the titular smacking; and a fantasy epilogue following the play’s devastating conclusion.
Matthew R. Campbell’s terrific set, and apropos lighting by Robert Thorpe and James Lewis, evoke the look and feel of an old-time European circus. Lavish costumes by Katherine Fritz and props by Flora Vassar recreate the rich formal attire and flashy circus gear of the era (though one oddly-proportioned outfit for Consuelo detracts from her pivotal appeal), and the performers’ creepy exaggerated make-up (conceived with consultant Jessica DalCanton) imparts both the dark comedy and human tragedy of the tale, reminding us that “clowns aren’t funny; they’re scary as hell.”
[Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad St.] March 30-April 16, 2016; philartistscollective.org.