Stolen Chair’s production of The Man Who Laughs–an adaptation of the iconic film of the same name, itself an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel–is a thrillingly executed, utterly captivating piece of physical theater. The ensemble toys masterfully with the visual tropes of silent film on stage and delivers a love letter to clowns, freaks, and outcasts the world over. This silent film for the stage illustrates how essential live theater is and how the theater of clown can touch us in very real ways.
The story follows Gwynplaine in 17th century England, who as a boy is mutilated and subsequently abandoned by the comprachicos, a troupe who travels around disfiguring children in order to display them in their sideshows for profit. The opening sequence is magnificently unsettling and we feel the weight and cruelty of the world in each of Noah Schultz’s tortured steps as the young title character. He is rescued, somewhat by accident, by Ursus, a traveling ventriloquist (he was a delightfully twisted man who cast a ventriloquist in a silent play) and survives with his adopted family on the fringes of society as a sideshow performer.
The lighting, makeup, and stage design lead to a delightful cognitive dissonance as we see the familiar–and yet alien–visual vocabulary of silent film played out by the very three dimensional actors. A scrim covers the front of the stage on which the title cards are projected and behind it all the action takes place. As the lights dim and flare, the actors swiftly and silently rearrange themselves to fit shot after shot. Detail is key in this production and the sound of a film projector constantly clacking in the background is a wonderful surprise once you remember that you’re not watching a film.
The cast is an incredibly talented bunch and you could cut chemistry between them with a knife. Eugene Ma’s turn at the ivories at the foot of the stage is as finely tuned and athletic as each performer’s movements and, just like his castmates, hits every. Single. Mark. Jon Froehlich’s Ursus carries the audience beautifully and seamlessly into the main thrust of the story after the horror of the opening act. Rescued by Gwynplaine as an infant, Molly O’Neill is uncannily convincing as the blind Dea. Her love for Gwynplaine shines in a pas de deux surrounding a hair comb and her turn as marionette in the play-within-a-play makes clear her physical comedy chops. Rebecca Whitehurst as the rich, powerful, and supremely bored duchess, Josiana, is hilarious when she transforms herself into a pitiful “commoner” just for the chance to get a thrill off of Gwynplaine and is just deliciously despicable throughout.
Clowns show us a truth that is hard to see. Like the jesters of royal courts past, they are allowed to point out the ugly and indeed it is easier to look when you’re laughing. Dave Droxler, as the grown-up Gwynplaine, embodies that fully. He is a powerhouse of physical comedy during the lengthy play-within-a-play, pulls our heartstrings with his delicate love of Dea, terrifies us with his rage against the amoral Josiana and ultimately shows us a human truth we might otherwise turn away from.
Gwynplaine, Ursus, and Dea play to us as the audience during their sideshow. Ursus holds out his hat to us for tokens of appreciation. It is to us that Gwynplaine looks in shock and shame when he realizes he is being laughed at. And it is at us he is laughing in the final tableau.
Stolen Chair’s The Man Who Laughs is a triumph. Do not miss this show.