Andy Schnabel as the title character in Shadow Horse Theatre's production of Clive Barker's Crazyface (photography by Christopher J. Mogel)
Legend has it the last words of the famous Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean on his deathbed were, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” That might be the quickest way to sum up what’s right and wrong with Shadow Horse Theatre’s production of horror writer Clive Barker’s play, the epic clown show/hero’s journey, Crazyface.
“You walk on rainbows, you juggle stars, and you can’t find your own coat?”
If you have a fear of clowns, this script from the pen and word processor of the man who wrote the Books of Blood and conjured such movies as Hellraiser and Candyman certainly won’t help. The fact that it’s uneven seems to be as much the fault of the source material as the production. Barker’s script is all over the place, and Shadow Horse’s production gleefully follows the story wherever it cares to go. Director Paul von Stoetzel has gathered an ensemble of 20 (yes, 20) actors and they don’t hold anything back, either. Every disgusting and uncomfortable moment is fully realized, and I’m not saying that as an insult.
“Ghosts, eh? I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s been one of those days.”
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of balance. The last moments of Crazyface are quite beautiful—with a man taking flight on homemade wings of wood and feathers, framed in angelic white light while his blind mother and her caretaker look on. And I found myself thinking, “Wow. Wait a minute, how did the play I just sat through lead us to that?” The answer is, I’m not entirely sure. There are elements of Crazyface that work like gangbusters, but when they’re pulled all together into this same universe on stage, they seem to be at war with one another, undercutting each other’s full effect rather than building to something transformative.
“I’m going to give it to the Pope. He’ll know what to do with it.”
The horror elements seem to be where Barker, von Stoetzel and Shadow Horse all feel the most comfortable. But it feels like a large swath of Crazyface also wants to be seen as comic, or farcical, or absurd. Comedy and horror can exist together, but it’s always a tricky mix, and more often than not, people can’t make it work. Either their heart isn’t in one side or the other of the mix, or try as they might, they just don’t have the tools to pull it off. Also, I must admit that, given my shaky history with clowns as entertainment rather than just pure nightmare fuel, my particular audience brain may have been more inclined to expect something terrible rather than something funny to happen. That said, the horrific and the grotesque in this stew seemed to land with the force intended, while the comedy seemed labored, drawn out, and often laugh-free. Again, this seems to be just as much the script’s issue as the production’s. If the writer doesn’t give you something nimble and funny, even the cleverest comic often can’t save it.
“God’s a woman, too? She is when she speaks to me.”
The plot here is the slenderest of threads and acts mostly as excuse to keep our protagonist, the clown known as Crazyface [aka Till Eulenspiegel] (Andy Schnabel) on the road and encountering an ever-expanding rogue’s gallery of bizarre humans and beasts. At first, Crazyface is traveling with his mother Ella (Fawn Wilderson-Legros), and his sisters-in-law, among whom is Annie (Megan Noel Johnson). Annie seems to care more for Crazyface than the unseen brother to whom she’s actually married. Annie also has more of a sense of adventure than the rest of the clan and sets out on a journey of her own, which, in one of the more successful comedic subplots, leads her to cross paths again with Crazyface at the Vatican.
“The ground wanted me more than the sky did.”
Crazyface is soon separated from the women and runs afoul of a series of spies from other countries, all outfitted in brilliantly red Musketeer/Pimpernel-style attire. Deliberately cheesy accents are the order of the day, and everyone wants so badly to get their hands on a mysterious box that they’re willing to kill for it. The contents of the mysterious box turn out to be the one non-horrific element of the plot, oddly enough. Nonetheless, Spanish spy Alvarez (Derek Meyer) falls victim to the sword of the other spies and manages to pass off the box to Crazyface before dying. The British spy Alvin (Corey Boe), the French spy Allegro (Derek Dirlam), and the Italian spy Alfonso (Joel Raney) all dog Crazyface on his journey. Crazyface isn’t as dumb as he at first appears, since he manages to outwit all three of them in the end. In related news, one of the spies adopts a turtle as their baby. (It’s that kind of play.)
“Is this a funeral?”
“It is. It’s just that there’s no body. It was eaten.”
Crazyface is also followed around by an Angel (Meyer again) who no one can see but him. A more genuinely angelic presence is that of the mute Old Clown (Joe Heaney), who helps get Crazyface out of more than a couple of scrapes without saying so much as a word.
“Come and fetch me, I dare you! Come and wipe the smile off my face!”
Another person on Crazyface’s heels is his murderous clown brother Lenny (Matthew Kelly). If you were starting to warm up to clowns, Lenny would reinvigorate your terror and repulsion at the sight of them. Almost singlehandedly, Kelly wigs me out so much as a spectator that I can’t imagine anything will end well, for anyone, ever. I expect rivers of blood that thankfully never appear (or at least not in the volume I’m dreading). Any time Kelly is onstage, he’s in danger of stealing the show (and I mean that as a compliment). The heart of the horror in this show lives in Lenny.
“I can’t waste my time keeping you sane.”
There’s also a wedding party of people with the snouts of pigs, witches conjuring traitorous spirits from the afterlife, noblemen urinating on their servants, naughty priests and cardinals (eye roll), cripples, beggars, pulcinellas, and a horse talking out of both its front and back ends. In addition to those noted above, the ensemble also includes Ethan Bjelland, Audrey Callerstrom, Shana Esienberg, Jane Hammill, Ilana Kapra, Jay Kistler, Billie Jo Konze, Earl Milton, Matt Saxe, David Otto Simanek, and Angela Walberg.
“Young puppies will lick anybody’s hand.”
Barb Portinga’s costume work on the army of actors isn’t the only standout design element here. The makeup design work of Carolyn Blomberg is also noteworthy, particularly on the clowns. But perhaps the most arresting visual image in the production is the enormous gnarled tree trunk that takes center stage throughout the play, created by scenic designer and installation artist Theresa Akers. It may not have leaves, but that tree dominates the landscape of the production, also serving as home base for the Angel to hang out and observe the human folly below.
“Your brother used to tread on angel’s tails.”
Crazyface isn’t for everyone. It’s more successful with the macabre than the chuckles. But if you’re looking for weird, it’s got all kinds of weird coming out its ears.
3 stars - Recommended
1517 Central Ave. NE