• Lunatics & Actors (L-R) Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Andrew Eldredge as PEPE Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE and Alexis Jones as FIFI (Photo - Andrew Eiden).

      Lunatics & Actors (L-R) Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Andrew Eldredge as PEPE Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE and Alexis Jones as FIFI (Photo – Andrew Eiden).

      Though the Four Clowns’ latest show is far from simple, the premise is easy:  in a world of Lunatics & Actors, is there any difference between the two?

      By Melanie Hooks

      Lunatics & Actors

      Lunatics & Actors

      If you thought this clown troupe was about red noses and bright makeup, put away your assumptions. Writer David Bridel, director and company leader Jeremy Aluma, permanent and guest cast members – all want to make mayhem. They wish to disturb your comfortable, passive audience experience and force you to create your own meaning, author your own opinion, as they break the fourth wall and make you squirm with questions of emotional validity. They want to make dangerous art, and with this latest production, Bridel & Aluma’s latest over a ten-year collaboration and the last before both take new posts, they succeed.

      Walking into the theater space at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles on First Street, past its corner view of downtown from the wrong side of the tracks, surprises with its feeling of broad space – a stage wider and deeper than the simple audience risers. Fred Kinney’s spare design of wooden frames gives the impression of a rat maze, and the company makes good use of it throughout the performance, sometimes to escape their oppression and others to play.

      Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE (Photo - Keleigh Layton).

      Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE (Photo – Keleigh Layton).

      We meet the first of four characters, Dr. Duchenne, based on an actual 19th century scientist, as he asserts his successful experiment:  he can make anyone feel anything he wishes. More than that, he can make you believe that their expression of that emotion is more authentic than that of a trained actor. He pits his three “lunatics” – the other three cast members, all dressed in Victorian garb and strait jackets – against three volunteers chosen from the audience. He requests trained actors, and this being LA, there were plenty to choose from. Their answers to the casting questionnaire create the first genuine laughs of the show. Thaddeus Shafer’s portrayal brings a warm sense of irony and humor to the oddball, steampunk doc, sidling up suggestively to the ladies and rolling his eyes at the actors’ explanations of their “technique.”

      After whittling down the three to one volunteer, Duchenne requests him to perform nine different emotions. After the actor makes a stab at each, the good doctor shocks one of the patients, who then performs that emotion as well. We as the audience are encouraged to applaud and cheer on the best performance. Of course it’s all artifice. We know no one is really being shocked, and at first, the over-the-top quality of the cast performances give rise to loud chuckles. Gradually however the lightness of mood darkens along with Azra King-Abadi’s effective use of stark spots and a grim plot spoiler I won’t reveal here. Tonally, this is never an easy shift, but the excellent cast, especially long-time trouper Alexis Jones and newcomer Andrew Eldridge, manage it well.

      Four Clowns' "Lunatics & Actors " (L-R) Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Alexis Jones as FIFI, and Andrew Eldredge as PEPE (Photo - Keleigh Layton).

      Four Clowns’ “Lunatics & Actors ” (L-R) Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Alexis Jones as FIFI, and Andrew Eldredge as PEPE (Photo – Keleigh Layton).

      They’re heading for big questions that warrant the mood:  what is the value, if any, of a manipulated emotional experience? Can we ever afford to sit back and be passive consumers of technologically-shaped art? The show’s electric shock panels and mad scientist combine to control the patients, to make them crave approval from the bully behind the manufactured experience – a timely media warning during election season.

      In fact, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that ‘Reflection’ and ‘Attention’ are two emotions the Doctor asks for. The performers debate. Are those actually emotions? The point seems to be:  are we reflecting enough, paying enough attention, to ourselves, to our real emotional lives? Or are we allowing others to dictate them to us? The traditional value of a narrative experience lies in the empathy we feel for struggling characters, our own reflections on what we might do in their shoes. Lunatics & Actors seems intent on putting our feet to the fire and asking us if we’re really doing so, or are we, as an audience, as a modern people, phoning it in? Are we content to binge watch Netflix or yell at a Facebook political video while ignoring the highs and lows of our own, potentially rich, lives? This could be reaching further than the writers and performers intend to go, but any production that provokes such rich questions is worth thinking about deeply.

      Lunatics & Actors
      • Written by David Bridel
      • Directed by Jeremy Aluma
      • Starring Thaddeus Shafer as DR. DUCHENNE, Tyler Bremer as BON-BON, Andrew Eldredge as PEPE, Alexis Jones as FIFI
      Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
      1238 W 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026

      • Weekends through May 28, 2016
      General admission: $12-15
      (Also, discounted tickets available for most dates at goldstar.com).
      • Buy tickets here.

      Screenwriter and columnist Melanie Hooks has lived on both coasts and in Hawaii, as well as the Midwest and the United Kingdom. Someday she hopes to follow JK Rowling’s lead and buy a Scottish castle. Until then, find her discoveries here.

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