Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the July 21, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: ‘Old Clown Wanted’
The notice posted on the door says "Old Clown Wanted." That’s a good
enough hint to the purpose and identity of Niccolo (Ames Adamson), the
tired older man fast asleep in one of only two straight-back chairs in
a virtually barren windowless anteroom. His beaten up suitcase sits on
the floor. Another hint as to what awaits him and us is the room
itself. The two-tone walls are slightly tilted, as is a lone file
cabinet, giving the room a skewed sense of reality. Filippo (Al H.
Mohrmann), another weary-looking man, enters the room. He also has a
Not only is it evident that he too has come to see about the job, but
also that he knows the other man. Filippo isn’t terribly happy to find
out that he isn’t going to be the first to be interviewed, but he
appears happy to be unexpectedly reunited with Niccolo, whom he hasn’t
seen since their circus days. Filippo says it was the way that Niccolo
blows his nose that made him remember him. But quite soon Filippo,
braced by the contents of his flask, begins to bait and taunt his old
friend, challenging the veracity of his tales and repeating rumors of
Insults are punctuated with embraces as the two reminisce about their
lives and their travels. Filippo’s insults prompt Niccolo to
demonstrate his agility by doing a head stand against the wall. In the
meantime, they wait for someone in authority to come. Someone does
come, but it is Peppino (Ugo N. Toppo), yet another old clown with a
suitcase. You can expect that long festering rivalries will be brought
to the surface, and they are.
The New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, known for its policy
of producing new plays, is presenting the United States premiere of
Romanian playwright Matei Visniec’s "Old Clown Wanted." Visniec’s play
is either a tribute or a throwback to the "theater of the absurd," an
expressionistic style of theater portraying a world that is no longer
rational. Either way you look at it, it is clearly prompted by the
kind of surreal theater that flourished during the 1950s and 1960s –
the most famous play of the genre being Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for
Godot." Many playwrights, including Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard,
Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard have been influenced by this kind of
theatrical literature, which stressed poetic metaphors.
Written about 10 years ago, "Old Clown Wanted" is a curious but
compelling dark comedy with its roots buried in the tradition of
ground-breaking existentialist playwrights Beckett, Jean Genet, and
Eugene Ionescu – to name a few). It resonates boldly with its kinship
to "Godot," especially in the thrust of its so-called plot in which
three forlorn but plucky fellows find solace in each other while
futilely waiting around for the answers to their questions.
Amidst the enjoyment of watching three accomplished actors careen
through circular antics, redundant arguments, and friendly and hostile
combat, there is the playwright’s agenda to consider. Visniec, who is
currently alive and well and living in Paris, was given political
asylum in France in 1987. But since the fall of communism he has
become one of Romania’s most performed playwrights. Niccolo, Filippo,
and Peppino are also perplexed by the circumstances in which they find
themselves. Each is filled with anxiety and still a hopeful wonder
about what the future holds. A final image of (well, I won’t spoil it
for you) allows us to consider whether what has happened has been a
fantasy, dream, or nightmare.
Whether this production by the New Jersey Rep will activate American
interest in Visniec’s more than 30 plays remains to be seen. "Old
Clown Wanted" is neither dense nor obscure, but it is somewhat retro
in its conceits.
Although director Gregory A. Fortner’s forte is primarily opera, his
theater credits are growing. A few seasons ago, he assisted director
Stephen Wadsworth in his production of Moliere’s "Don Juan" at
McCarter. Fortner provides a firm grip on this play, which could
otherwise get lost in abstractionism. He inspires some very clear and
touching performances, particularly as the three relive their old
clown act in a whirl of funny mime and, of course, growing menace.
As the defensive Niccolo, Adamson gets a lot of mileage out of an
aggressively used handkerchief and his amusingly eccentric body
language (most recently put to memorable use as Holofernes, in the
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s production of "Love’s Labour’s
Lost"). Mohrmann is eerily effective as the enigmatic provocateur
Filippo, while Toppo, as the dapper and condescending Peppino, their
senior and mentor, gives the most poignant performance. He is
unmercifully derided by his colleagues because he has found a modicum
of success as, of all things, an actor.
Translated from the French by Britisher Alison Sinclair, this play
might appear even better with an American translation that would
soften the slightly arch text. Praise to Carrie Mossman’s off-kilter
set design, Merek Royce Press’s multi-channel sound design, and Jill
Nagle’s stark lighting.
"Old Clown Wanted" is not especially innovative, but it is intriguing.
I would recommend it for all those interested in getting a perspective
on international theater.
– Simon Saltzman
Old Clown Wanted, through August 15, New Jersey Repertory Company, 179
Broadway, Long Branch. $30. 732-229-3166.
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