“The Man Who Laughs”: A Live Silent Film for the Stage by the Stolen Chair theater company is a stunningly beautiful work of art. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and highly recommend going to see it.
“The Man Who Laughs” was originally a novel written by Victor Hugo, and later adapted into a silent film in the 1920’s (and also a French film (with sound) made in 2012.) Stolen Chairs’ production however is anything but a mere recreation of the original silent film. In fact, it bares little resemblance to that film at all and is indeed a completely original adaptation. The story follows a young man (Gwynplaine) who is captured by a malevolent band of gypsies when still a child and deformed to look like he is permanently smiling. Fun fact: Gwynplaine is supposedly the inspiration for the Joker from the “Batman” comics. In this story, however, Gwynplaine begins as a kind, and gentle soul – saving the life of an infant girl – Dea – who, blind from birth, grows into a beautiful young woman. Gwynplaine and Dea take up residence with Ursus – a traveling performer, and the three of them form what can only be termed an “artistic freak show.” Gwynplaine and Dea have a star-crossed romance complicated by the fact that Dea is not aware of his deformity, and by Gwynplaine’s obsession to be taken seriously, and cared for as a person. Things take a horribly tragic turn when a Duchess and Lord enter into the story – their desperation for entertainment leading to the downfall of just about every character in the piece.
Did I mention that “The Man Who Laughs” is a tragic physical comedy? Yes, for all its tragic themes (which I must note it pulls off brilliantly – I was left very moved at the end of the evening) it is brilliantly funny. And yes, completely physical. This is after all a live silent film. The show within a show section actually reminded me of “The Marionette” sequence from Bill Irwin’s “The Clown Bagatelles” featured in “The Regard of Flight.”
To describe the show in too much detail would take away some of the enchantment of experiencing it for yourself. The stage is a traditional proscenium set up with a black scrim downstage the entire show. Onto this scrim title cards are projected, just as they would be in a silent film. Then lights come up behind the scrim, and the actors perform the action of the piece – much as you might see in a quarter automated marionette theater at an old fashioned arcade. All of the design elements – set, costumes, even the make up are comprised completely of black, white, and shades of sepia. Combined with the fact that the actors are being illuminated from behind a scrim the effect is uncannily like seeing a silent film in 3-D. Eugene Ma accompanies the action on the piano (he also composed the score) brilliantly. The result is a more visceral, more human silent film experience that does for physical theater what the recent remake of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” did for physical storytelling on film. In fact, I would say that this show has more in common stylistically with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” then the original silent film version of “The Man Who Laughs.”
To single out everyone worthy of mention would make this a thesis rather then a review. The amount of talent that went into the creation of this show is staggering. In reading through everyone’s bio it’s clear that these are highly trained artists who are experts in physical theater, and physical comedy. Kiran Rikhye’s writing is inspired – and it’s not easy to write title cards that so clearly tell the story, are entertaining, and pay homage to the title cards of original silent films. Jon Stancato is a brilliant director – especially knowing that the only script was the title cards written by Kiran Rikhye. I would pay good money to sit in on one of his rehearsals. Did I mention he manages to give actors close ups? The make up, set, costumes, lights, and effects were genius. And the performers were breathtaking. The combat was exquisite. Special kudos has to go to Dave Droxler for performing all but ten minutes of the show in what looks like some kind of torture device that allows him to keep that disturbing Heath Ledger-like grin for an hour and a half straight.
This is truly a not to be missed experience. Go see “The Man Who Laughs.” Seeing a “silent film” performed live gives you a newfound respect for the likes of Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. This is high art at its most entertaining.