Let’s get the unpleasantries out of the way first: Lunatics and Actors, a Four Clowns production running now through May 28 at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, is hampered by a diffuse, unfocused script that is altogether too lightweight for its own good. (And given that this is a macabre comedy and study in human nature, that’s saying something.) The usually reliable Four Clowns company offers the audience a narrative that centers on a doctor’s experiments in behavioral controls with a group of deeply sick mental patients and one very special newcomer, which sounds like a voyage into existential darkness. Unfortunately, things stay fairly shallow and little is said about humanity that couldn’t be picked up from a cursory review of Poe’s “System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”
Now that that’s been said, the good things about this show are plentiful. The production qualities, though austere, are very well-realized, from the lighting design to costume and makeup to the minimalist set. Stage management is deft and the necessary props are authoritative and help complete the entire tableau. It’s all just cartoonish enough in design to remind you it’s meant in grim fun, while never veering into Tim Burton territory.
Which takes us to the acting and direction. The line between comedy and horror is not a firm one, and both genres are driven by evoking strong emotion in a short amount of time. This necessarily means that actors doing horror-comedy need to either be very grounded, to keep our attention, or to be exactly the right kind of over the top. Happily, everyone in this cast knows where to take their characters in terms of stratospheric excess. This is all to the good, but by about the halfway point in the show, the script leaves them up in the highest parts of the big top without a tightwire—the narrative becomes a kind of semi-repetitive torture porn, and even the most charismatic work the actors and director can do is no match for the writing.
This is a shame, because the caliber of talent on display (yes, including the playwright, though I’ve spent half this review moaning about the script) is absolutely top-notch and everyone’s heart is completely in it. I rooted for them to overcome the flaws in the show, but in the end, it just didn’t quite get there. I was only mildly amused, and had higher hopes. But perhaps you’ll think differently of it. If you’re in the mood for a bit of Grand Guignol nihilism, give Lunatics and Actors a chance, down at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.