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A CurtainUp Review
He Who Gets Slapped
I wanted to create a beautiful life severely devoted to tragedy, to be outside of society . . . and I found myself outside of life as well, throwing my writings into life once in a while, like a boy throwing stones over a fence into a stranger's garden. — Playwright Leonid Andreyev
Bob Weick
Photo: Bob Weick as Papa Briquet the ringmaster
(Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde and Wide Eyed Studios)
A once prominent writer says goodbye cruel world and is off to join the circus, where he becomes a broken-hearted clown. His sad clown name, reflected in his circus act, is He Who Gets Slapped.

Written in 1914 on the eve of WWI, He Who Gets Slapped is currently in performance by The Philadelphia Artists' Collective (PAC). Birthed in 2008 as "an active breeding ground for artists," PAC won the 2015 prestigious June and Steve Wolfson Award for an Evolving Theatre Company. The production is presented in partnership with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

Of particular interest among the circus of characters directed by Damon Bonetti, are Ross Beschler's sensitively played lead clown role, Brian McCann's wonderfully shallow Count, and Bob Weick's fine turn as the ringmaster who's the only straight shooter in the bunch.

And there's a depressed scary lion tamer (Annette Kaplafka), an agile acrobat (Ben Grinberg), and an ominous stranger (Terry Brennan), who once monstrously cheated the runaway writer, but growls, "I am your shadow and I hate you for it." Circus clowns (Josh Totora, Andalyn Young, and Terry Brennan) apparently can do anything and everything.

The least inherently interesting character, and the pivot on which the plot turns, is pretty Consuelo (Isabella Fehlandt). She's the love interest on whom others project their desires and passions, a black hole who draws in those who orbit around her. The force this passive character in an unflattering costume exerts as the object of affection is hard to fathom. In this production it's apparently so because the script says it's so. A Baron (Nathan Foley) loves her "unbearably." And "He" (He Who Gets Slapped's name has been reduced to the nickname, "He.") has also fallen in love with Consuelo. She is unrequitedly sweet on the handsome acrobat, but would settle for her father's choice, the wealthy old Baron. In a spooky palm reading "He" warns her that if she marries the Baron she will perish.

Although this early expressionist work was part of the mighty push of the modern that went on a hundred or so years ago, it reeks of the same19th century sensibility that Andreyev criticized. But instead of a dreary drawing room, the action transpires in an anteroom beneath the Big Top. PAC's production features a striped circus awning of colorful ribbons and lights. The large space, with its floor covered in Oriental rugs, serves as the ringmaster's office and a storage room for big old trunks. In the interplay of realism and fantasy, it is also a place where music happens. The actor/musicians play all kinds of instruments, directed by Totora.

The playwright favored interiority and ranted against plays that were too external. He Who Gets Slapped, while full of witty bon mots, is a deep, soulful play in search of tragic meaning and full of old Russian angst. It is set with great irony in the outward, antic world of the circus, with its bright costumes, acrobatic stunts, and bare-ass juggling. In a world where underlying anxiety and despair are fitted out with clown suits, the real drama isn't on the highly entertaining and bustling surface.

Although popular in his day, Andreyev never reached the heights of mystical symbolist playwrights like Strindberg or Wedekind, who have remained popular. This story of lost souls has been Andreyev's only work still occasionally produced in U.S. theaters. It's lucky that this antique fit PAC's mission of staging lesser known classic plays, regarding them not as high art to be handled like brittle artifacts, but as expressions of the experiences of living, breathing characters. Without this kind of theater mission, it's highly unlikely that Philadelphia audiences would have the opportunity to see this unusual collaborative expressionist work.

He Who Gets Slapped by Leonid Andreyev
Adapted by Walter Wykes
Directed by Damon Bonetti
Cast: Ross Beschler, Isabella Fehlandt, Brian McCann, Annette Kaplafka, Bob Weick, Terry Brennan, Ben Grinberg, Josh Totora, Andalyn Young, Nathan Foley
Scenic Design: Matt Campbell
Lighting Design: Robert Thorpe
Costume Design: Katherine Fritz
Circus Art Consultant: Shana Kennedy
Music Director: Josh Totora
Choreographer of movement and circus art: Terry Brennan
Mar 30 – April 16, 2016
2 hours and 10 minutes including one 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 04/07/2016 performance. The Philadelphia Artists' Collective in partnership with The Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. Broad Street Ministry, 315 South Broad St. Philadelphia
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