The delicate danger of the Big Top mixes with a resonant sadness in Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s circus-themed production of Leonid Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped. In partnership with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, the adaptation by Walter Wykes examines a misfit band of performers whose lives are interrupted by the entrance of a stranger with a mysterious past.
Director Damon Bonetti transforms a complicated script into a sustained and haunting tremolo. For this play-behind-the-play, a theatrical nature inherently infuses the action. On top of which Bonetti adds bits of acrobatics, juggling, tumbling, balancing and dancing of all kinds (led by Terry Brennan), to give a small taste of what’s happening in the ring, just on the other side of the curtain. What results is a mixture of realism and surrealism, and a story doing it’s own kind of daring tight-rope walk.
Upsetting the everyday business of this not-so-happy troupe of players is He (Ross Beschler), a man without a name or history, claiming he has no personal details and hoping to enlist as a clown, who gets slapped. Once accepted, he becomes tangled in the company’s web, navigating the elitist Count (Brian McCann) and Baron (Nathan Foley) within their own marriage negotiations for the prized Consuelo (Isabella Fehlandt). Spurned lovers here and there create a fallout from the impending nuptials as well as a dream-like state concerning those involved. He’s mysterious past does not deliver quite as much satisfaction as one might hope, but nevertheless, his impact on the company is palpable.
Ross Beschler plays the titular He with loose limbs and a frighteningly large smile, donning the chilling clown makeup that gives him access to his imagined life of adventure. For him, the circus life is a chance to escape the upper crust, but confronts just as much drama as he may be running from. While Xena the Liontamer (Annete Kaplafka) pines for the young and handsome Bezano (Ben Grinberg), Papa Briquet (Bob Weick) wrangles the whole group, as well as their varied affections for the precious Consuelo.
While the various tastes of circus acts bring authenticity throughout, clowns Paulie (Andalyn Young) and Wally (Josh Totora) easily become a crowd favorite. With their charming repartee and goofiness, they serve to puncture some of the self-seriousness throughout and bring a welcomed effervescence to the mix. Josh Totora also serves as musical director and lead musician as the actors take up instruments here and there to underscore the scenes with intensity. The music builds anticipation throughout with a simplicity and eeriness at times.
Completing the picture, Matthew R. Campbell’s scenic design turns the already interesting structure of Broad Street Ministry into a vintage spectacle framed by a striped streamers and posters evoking the circus from days gone by. Lights by Robert Thorpe and James Lewis evoke the sparkle and shadow of the seedy world where necessary, and Katherine Fritz’s costume design patches together an ensemble of glamour and fading glory.
As a company, PAC has become an adventurous voice in Philadelphia, producing work from eras most theaters fear and titles even the savviest theatergoers might not recognize. What they add to the landscape is curious, complex work that challenges the status quo and relieves the usual “Classics” fatigue. He Who Gets Slapped intrigues and entertains while balancing the sadness and unpolished twinkle of a unique tale.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with an intermission.
He Who Gets Slapped plays through April 16, 2016, presented by Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, performing at Broad Street Ministry – 315 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 551-1543, or purchase them online.
Preview: A Unique Partnership for ‘He Who Gets Slapped’ by the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts by Deb Miller.