LETTERS TO EDITOR
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A CurtainUp Review
World of Mirth
by Les Gutman
It will come as very little surprise to anyone who has ever visited a carnival midway that things are not always as they appear. So, just as the Wild Woman of Borneo is really just Buffy Starr (Deidre O'Connell), a woman willing to be just about anything for sustenance, there's little glee beyond the light bulbs that colorfully spell out the name over Kaspar Kelly's (Victor Slezak) World of Mirth.
There are no customers at this midway: it's been raining for days, and even before that, handicapped people were protesting the appearance of Oscar the Amazing Frog Boy -- so much so that Kaspar canned his act. All of the other carnies loved Oscar, so when he drowned himself in Sweeney (Mark Johannes) the clown's dunk tank, the pall thickened over this already faded set (marvelously evoked by Michael Brown). Things only get worse when the fire marshall, Ken Harley (John Elsen), shows up, finding any number of infractions in Kaspar's half-assed operation. The only happy news I can report is that Murphy Guyer has fashioned this gloom into an odd but engaging theater work that draws a compelling portrait of its subject.
What drives World of Mirth is not so much Guyer's story, which doesn't afford a great deal to chew on, but rather its fine cast and the characters Guyer has created for them. At the center is Sweeney, who spends most of the show locked in a dunk tank cage. He's a misanthrope, driven to alcohol and obstreperousness by cynicism. The good-natured taunting of this clown has turned genuinely mean, and without customers, he directs his vitriol to his co-workers. They are a desperate bunch, lorded over by the putatively-paternal Kaspar and his foreman/hatchet man, Patch (Jack Willis). The conflict between a sense of "family," whether real or invented, and economic necessity, is pervasive, and most likely chronic.
Johannes's Sweeney is not someone many of us would willingly share an evening with, but he is steadfast in his creation. There's also a morbid truth underlying much of the deception he offers, and plenty of self-deception all around. His young partner, Augie (Kieran Campion), the dunk tank's front man, dreams of a better life, a nicer clown, a richer carnival and a girl (in this case, Patch's step-daughter, Marcey (Angela Gots), who plays the mute-girl, and seems to be.) The tragic end Sweeney orchestrates for himself (through deception, natch, and pretty much telegraphed by Guyer) comes at Augie's unwitting hand, and pretty much bursts his bubble as well.
The counterpoint to Sweeney's calculated anxiety is the drug and age addled Emmett (George Bartenieff). Far different from the last time we saw Bartenieff (playing Victor Klemperer in Classic Stage's solo I Will Bear Witness,) here he is an old roustabout who depends on Kaspar for his fix -- as he no doubt has for years -- and who frets that he is responsible for the current state of affairs, in which he faces the incomprehensibility of being cut loose. The skilled Bartenieff is marvelous, mixing despondency with a quirky warmth. Willis and Slezak, two other seasoned actors that we have enjoyed elsewhere, bring similar richness to their roles.
For anyone harboring low expectations of this summer entry about behind-the-scenes carnival life, it's definitely worth a peek into the tent. Step right up.