Old Clown Wanted Provides Rewards for Adventuresome Theatergoers
The enterprising New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch is presenting the American premiere of Old Clown Wanted by internationally acclaimed Romanian (expatriated to France since 1987) playwright Matei Visniec. This absurdist work is being presented in a well acted and directed production which serves to introduce an intriguing writer new to American audiences, and makes for a thought provoking and rewarding evening of theatre.
An apercu on the roots of Visniec’s absurdist style is needed here. In the post Holocaust era of the late 1940s and 1950s, an avant-garde school of playwriting emerged from Europe which had a most significant impact on our theatre. In his seminal work of theatre analysis, Martin Esslin deftly defined it as The Theatre of the Absurd. Among its earliest practitioners were Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. Harold Pinter brought an English sensibility to this style, Tom Stoppard brought a cheerier viewpoint, and Edward Albee uniquely among American playwrights found in it a means for expressing his anomie.
To quote from Esslin’s brilliant analysis, absurdist theatre mirrors a world in which there is no meaningful communication, in which man cut off from his roots flounders in a void bereft of all certainty. With its meaningless plots, repetitive dialogue and dramatic non sequiturs, it is the artistic expression of the philosophy of Albert Camus that life is inherently absurd, as well as the theatrical incarnation of dreams.
Old Clown Wanted is a classic throwback to the pure absurdist style of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot right down to its rich vein of humor. Not so strangely at one point in composing this review, I erroneously wrote Old Men Waiting in lieu of its correct title.
Set in a nightmarish, windowless, misshapen anteroom in Italy, the play depicts three elderly men, old friends as it turns out, armed with suitcases for their props, who arrive singly in response to a flyer advertising Old Clown Wanted. As no one appears to interview them, it is not even clear whether any job is actually available.
Viewed as a dream depicting man’s fear of competition, joblessness, rejection, obsolescence, poverty, helplessness and death, the ensuing, non-linear events brilliantly depict the logic of dreams. However, you may well find for yourself a different prism from which to view and interpret this play.
An added edge here is the fact that all of the characters are artists, the most insecure and abused professionals on earth.
Ugo Toppo, Al Mohrmann, Ames Adamson
Three excellent actors form a smooth ensemble. The first arrival, Niccolo (we may view him as the dreamer), the most insecure of the three, is played by Ames Adamson. Niccolo is the centerpiece of the play and of the hilarious extended second act set piece in which the three depict routines from their glory days as circus clowns. Adamson is appropriately hilarious, ridiculous and poignant in a performance that evokes memories of the great Bill Irwin. Adamson would be even more poignant if he did not let his youthfulness show through. However, in total, his is a very superior performance.
Next on stage is Filippo, a bullying, domineering type, played by Al A. Mohrmann. His fine performance always keeps Filippo’s insecurity near at hand, just below his blustering surface.
Lastly, we have the dapper Peppino effectively portrayed by Ugo N. Toppo. Seemingly, the most urbane and confident of the three, Toppo chillingly turns out to be the cruelest clown of all.
The English translation by Alison Sinclair appears felicitous. Director Gregory Fortner creates a consistent sense of unease and elicits excellent performances from his trio of actors. His inventive direction catapults the “performance” sequence to heights of hilarity. In a coup de theatre therein, the audience contributes to a “magic trick” of Filippo. Whether credit is due to the director or author, it is quite effective.
Americans are less receptive than Europeans to The Theatre of the Absurd. I think that this is because our history and good fortune have made us more optimistic and allowed us to believe that we are in control of our own lives. While such a belief inevitably contains elements of naivety, it is quite a wonderfully enabling way to view our world.
However, if you have ever enjoyed the early European absurdists (even with the estimable help of performances by the likes of Bert Lahr or Zero Mostel), you will certainly want to make the acquaintance of Matei Visniec.
Certainly, Visniec’s Old Clown Wanted is well worth our time and attention. The New Jersey Rep is to be cherished for bringing it to us.
Old Clown Wanted continues performances through August 15 at the New Jersey Repertory Company’s Lumia Theatre, 179 Broadway (entrance from Liberty Street), Long Branch, New Jersey 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org.
Old Clown Wanted by Matei Visniec; translated by Gregory A. Fortner; directed by Gregory A. Fortner. Cast: Ames Adamson (Niccolo); Al H. Mohrmann (Filippo); Ugo N. Toppo (Peppino)