'Red Noses': A Dark Comedy With Biting Social Satire
“Red Noses”, written by British playwright Peter Barnes has been chosen as the premiere play of the Actors’ Gang’s 30th season. Barnes was known for his dark comedy using shocking and biting, social satire. His Holocaust play is titled “Laughter”.
“Red Noses” was written in 1978 but not performed until 1985 due to the newness of the AIDS epidemic and lack of information concerning it. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in London that year won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best Play.
The plot is very simple: The Black Death is ravaging France in 1348, which causes fear and alienation among the citizens and brings out the worst in humans. Those, who practice religion, are deserted by their clergy except for Father Flote (Jeremie Loncka). He decides that what the dying people need is laughter and then becomes a stand-up comedian with one-liners like, ”Anyone can tell that you are a gentleman because you are so useless.”
Loncka is zany and charming and without a clue. He brings great energy and fun to his role and is surrounded by a cast of 22 other actors consisting of: the Flagellants, who believe that inflicting pain on themselves will cause God to end The Plague; a blind juggler, corpse bearers who scavenge and rob the dead; a mute who communicates by shaking bells, lepers, a stammering stand-up comedian and a lascivious nun.
Father Flotke proclaims, “God wants peacocks, not ravens, bright stars not sad comets, red noses not Black Death. He wants joy.” Thus, was born Christ’s Clowns. His motto is “God can be moved by smiles as well as tears.”
The ensemble is great, and an example of the clever costuming is having the scavengers dressed in costumes of plastic bags and a sort of homeless chic for the galley slaves and serfs. Touches of the macabre are provided by black ravens. In addition to Loncka’s work stand-out performances include Mary Ellen O’Donnell as Pope Clement VI, and scene stealer Cynthia Ettinger as Sister Marguerite, the nymphomaniac nun.
Father Flote has the classic line as he asks the pope, “What would you call a priest consorting with a lusty, wanton nun?” The obvious answer is “Lucky.”
Every actor’s performance is a delight, and the overall effect is very intelligent mayhem. The 23 actors all on a small stage at once could be confusing for the audience, but the sure hand of director Dominique Serrand keeps things in check.
Serrand is Artistic Director of the Minneapolis-based ensemble theater, The Moving Company. He has had extensive theatre and opera experience in the United States and France and has been knighted by the French Government in the order of Arts and Letters.
Tim Robbins says, “Dominique is a master of the kind of theatre we at the Actors’ Gang love and consider our lineage. His presence here is a real honor for us and provides a great opportunity for our company to grow in new directions.”
Mr. Serrand has been commissioned by Center Theatre Group to co-author “Massoud”, a new play dealing with the Afghan War.
Of “Red Noses” Serrand states, “ It pulsates with relevance. Far from us to exult in turmoil we have chosen this play for its extraordinary sense of togetherness and optimism.”
In his 2004 obituary Peter Barnes was called “an exhilarating dramatist…as a sworn enemy of naturalism and writer of large-cast plays…he was always swimming against the tide. But a Barnes play was always an exciting event; running through all his work was a passionate belief that a joke can be an instrument of change rather than a diversion from reality.”
His parents worked in amusement arcades in a resort area in England. The carny frame of mind is evident in the characters in “Red Noses”.
There are hits and misses with the lines and execution. The set was spare which was necessary with such a large cast. The first act was a little long. Cutting it by 15 minutes would have helped with timing and pacing. The troupe had great energy but at times there was a little confusion with actors coming and going and the audience trying to see everything at once.
At the end of the play when the plague is over, the status quo of the dominance of the clergy returns. This play may be understood on many levels symbolizing the first reactions to AIDS patients, the politics of religion and a hard look at basic human nature, survival of the fittest.
The theme can be summed up with the lines, “ We are the darkness” and “It’s easy to find someone to share your life but who will share your death?”
The Actor’s Gang continues its tradition of unique and innovative material handled so well by brilliant performances, direction and a commitment to forcing its audiences to continue to think and feel even after the curtain has fallen.
“Red Noses” continues on Thursday through Saturday nights through November 19 in Culver City.