By Kristina Church
Daily News correspondent
“He Who Gets Slapped” is a play from a decidedly European tradition of theatrical expressionism. Written by the Soviet dissident Leonid Andreyev, and first performed at the Moscow Art Theatre during a particularly fertile period of Russian performance art, it takes its inspiration from the world of the circus, replete with archetypes and bursting with colorful life.
The current production at UAA features a gorgeous, well-designed set by Anita Algiene and sumptuous costumes by Abbie Foster and Fran Lautenberger.
Unfortunately most of the performances are unable to match the high bar set by the production values.
Nonetheless, “Slapped” gives us a glimpse of an entirely foreign theatrical tradition, to which American audiences are rarely exposed.
The play tells a simple, elemental tale. The main character, known only as “He” and played with great physical skill by Waldo — a local performer who uses only one name — is a man who has everything: a promising career, a beautiful wife, a passion for science. In an instant, all the trappings of his perfect life are stolen by another man. With little left but his wits, He runs away to join the circus, creating a successful performance career by depicting his victimization onstage in a comedy routine. Yet the negative forces that seem to control this man’s life continue to follow him into his new life.
After the play’s exciting opening, in which the ringmaster (Zach Gowdy) introduces the main character, there follows a long, meandering introduction to the life of the circus and its various denizens. This section gets a bit static; I found myself falling out during the endless exposition from Count Mancini (Brandon Laurence), a sort of aristocratic groupie of the circus troupe. Andreyev takes his time about getting the plot in motion, so the first act is mostly setting the stage, punctuated with brief (and unfortunately, quite unfunny) glimpses of the clowns doing their circus routines.
The two female characters are polar opposites who embody two female archetypes: Consuela, played by the lovely Robyn Pucay, is the innocent ingenue, appealing in her utter passivity and helplessness. Zinaida, the lion tamer, is played by Michelle Webb in a strong, compelling performance. Zinaida is depicted as a lioness, hardworking, capable, experienced, strong and lonely. Both women will meet with tragedy before the end of the night.
Andreyev is concerned with some of the great and timeless existential themes of literature and drama: fate versus free will, altruism v. self-interest, beauty and art v. commerce, struggle v. acceptance. The circus, with its aura of illusion and its undertone of danger and death, is the perfect setting in which to tell a story that is operatic in scope.
Perhaps that sense of scope was what I found missing from many of the performances. When playing these roles, the job is not so much to create a character, but to embody an archetype, something that’s foreign to many of those trained in American-style acting methods.
While some managed to find this kind of stylized technique, others were less successful. I had the feeling that people were doing too much onstage, rather than too little. There’s a kind of stillness and control in European acting, a sense that one can merely reflect a piece of something, rather than the more American notion that one’s character is a complete universe unto himself.
There’s also a heavily stylized quality that is not based on the inner qualities of the character, but on the slice of society that the character represents. I don’t know how Americans are supposed to find this. Perhaps director David Edgecombe should have worked harder on laying this technical foundation early in the rehearsal process.
“Slapped” builds up to a truly tragic climax of the “everyone ends in mincemeat” variety. Its nihilistic vision confirms the inexorable nature of fate. And yet, the life of the circus goes on, as the ringmaster reminds us that everything we’ve seen is an illusion, and the company takes a bow.
The company, along with director Edgecombe, is to be commended for taking on this challenging material. While not fully realized, it’s a worthy effort in a difficult medium, which should make a fascinating theatrical spectacle for Anchorage theatergoers.
The show will be continue through March 18, at 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 6 p.m. Sun. at the UAA Fine Arts Building Mainstage Theatre. Tickets are $13-$18 at www.centertix.net or 263-2787.
CREDIT: Kristina Church lives in Anchorage.