We try hard to hide it, but people have been noticing for centuries that actors and mentally ill folks have a lot in common.
Currently, Four Clowns is tossing that notion in the air, juggling it, and seeing where it lands, in Lunatics & Actors. The piece, by David Bridel (the group’s Associate Director), looks playfully into an area we usually think of as fraught with suffering and seriousness.
To free our minds, the troupe flips us backward a century and a half to a time when Europe’s scientists were first eagerly learning about the human nervous system. In an empty utilitarian space, we meet the urbane Dr. Duchenne. We’re here, he explains, to watch him demonstrate his scientific discoveries.
(The real Duchenne is now generally regarded as the father of neuroscience. His protegé, Jean-Martin Charcot, ran a world-famous “science theatre” in the Salpetrière, the Parisian insane asylum, using his patients to demonstrate. Among Charcot’s most famous students were Freud and Jung.)
Our Dr. Duchenne is a witty performer, confident in his work and comfortable onstage. He’s most eager to share his findings about portraying human emotions. He claims he can stimulate his patients to produce them perfectly — better than actors can. He challenges any actors in the audience to come onstage and join the test.
Much clowning ensues — not with clowns, but with remarkable and fearless physicality, and comical deflation of our ego balloons.
Duchenne’s increasingly manic trials may not persuade us of his discovery, but we are utterly (and uncomfortably) convinced that a thin membrane guards us all — not just the actors among us — from the loss of self we call madness.
As is usual with Four Clowns, all the performers deliver full energy every moment. Dr. Duchenne (Thaddeus Shafer), for all his self- assurance, never stops scanning the horizon for … something. A rival, come to dispute him? The patients, meanwhile (Tyler Bremer, Andrew Eldridge, and Alexis Jones) never just watch one another perform a test; each is also engaged in advancing an agenda, sometimes secret, sometimes obvious. Director Jeremy Aluma shows what a master juggler can do with a stageful of actors.
Four Clowns has won an enviable reputation for taking the skills of clowning and building new kinds of storytelling from the oldest of theatricks. Lunatics and Actors extends this work with a lively amusement that entertains the mind as well. It also takes us where the best clowning goes — to places where we hide things.
Lunatics & Actors, by David Bridel, directed by Jeremy Aluma.
Presented by Four Clowns, at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. First St., LA 90026.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
through May 28.