By any measure, Stolen Chair Theatre Company's production of The Man Who Laughs must be reckoned a triumph. Billed as a live silent film for the stage, that's precisely what it is: a faithful, loving recreation of an art that already seems ancient; not played for laughs or even curiosity value, but rather as a meaningful end in itself—a pastiche, yes, but also, if you will, a proof. There is something to be gained, and learned, from all that innocence that we've lost touch with in the eighty-odd years since the Silent Era.
The story, a touch maudlin and more than a shade macabre, is from Victor Hugo's novel L'Homme qui rit. It takes place in Europe in the late 1600s/early 1700s, where a young boy named Gwynplaine is kidnapped by a band of marauders known as comprachicos who terrorize the countryside by capturing innocent people and disfiguring them so that they can be sold as sideshow freaks. To Gwynplaine they affix a permanent smile, carving up his face so that his lips are enlarged and forever curled upwards in a cruel and grotesque parody of clownishness.
The comprachicos flee before they can profit from their handiwork on Gwynplaine, however. The boy wanders through a horrific storm—the kind that Lillian Gish always seemed to find herself alone in—during which he happens upon a dead body in the snow, clutching a still-breathing infant. He rescues the babe, and continues his journey with the tiny girl in tow. Eventually he happens upon the home of Ursus ("a misanthropic ventriloquist," a title card tells us, but one who, as we will see, has a heart of pure gold). Ursus takes the two children in. His reluctance is tempered by his sympathy for the little boy whose face, he soon discovers, has been so hideously scarred; and for the girl, whom he names Dea, who, it turns out, is blind.
Nineteen years pass. Ursus has taught Gwynplaine and Dea to become performers, and he presents them in fairs and the like as "The Laughing Man" and a tragically unsighted ingénue. Their life is modest but generally happy—except for the occasions when Gwynplaine broods about his fate. He wants people to stop laughing at him; he wants to be taken seriously as an actor and a man; he wants romance. Though he and Dea are deeply in love, they behave as brother and sister; so when a ruthless and spoiled Duchess takes an interest in Gwynplaine, he runs off with her. The results are predictably tragic; I will leave it for you to discover exactly how the story plays itself out.
The folks at Stolen Chair tell the story with economy and affection in about ninety minutes. All of the accoutrements of the silent film are here: A dark translucent scrim stands between actors and audience, giving all the action a grainy sepia look that's spot-on. Titles—on transparent cards; there's no high-tech PowerPoint presentation here to jostle us into the 21st century—are projected on the scrim, providing narration and dialogue as required. (They're written by scenarist Kiran Rikhye, who has done a skillful job.) A live soundtrack is played by pianist Emily Otto, stationed just to the front left of the screen; next to her, Aviva Meyer takes care of the sound effects. From somewhere in the back of the theatre is a sound of a film projector—a really lovely touch.
The action, delivered (astonishingly!) by just six actors, is performed in the heightened expressive style of silent movies. The actors never speak, of course, but they mouth dialogue frequently, often so distinctly that their words can be read on their lips. The costumes (by May Elbaz) are all in blacks, greys, whites, and sepias, providing an uncanny black-and-white look that's matched by David Bengali's ingenious sets. Bengali's lighting completes the illusion of an 80- or 90-year old film coming to life on stage.
The performances are splendidly stylized. Director Jon Stancato maintains consistency of tone, pace, and approach throughout with remarkable acuity. Jennifer Wren, as Dea, is the standout: in her long blonde curls, she's channeling Gish and Pickford in a portrayal of pure and unfettered innocence that comments on itself without seeming reflexive or ironical. Her "speaking" of the dialogue has spectacular precision, and her movements are exaggerated just so, not too big but not so subtle that we will miss them; she understands what Norma Desmond meant when she said "we had faces then," and even with the limitation of not being able to act with her eyes (her character is blind, remember), she's able to convey an astonishing array of emotions.
Jon Campbell, as Gwynplaine, is nearly as impressive, in a wrenching performance of the tragic hero. (We're aware, but only subliminally, of the painful apparatus that distorts his mouth and prevents many of the muscles in his face from being used; this is a fearless and dedicated actor sacrificing for his art.) Alexia Vernon is suitably malevolent as the Duchess, while Cameron Oro is, until the final scenes, mostly comic relief as her languid lover Lord Dirry Moir. Rounding out the company are Dennis Wit, invaluable as Ursus, and Ariana Seigel as the young Gwynplaine. One of the many amazing things that Stancato and his collaborators accomplish is the illusion of crowds and minor characters, bolstering the scenario though always unseen.
Otto's accompaniment, which (she confided in a talkback after the performance) is mostly improvised, feels entirely authentic. The sound effects are used sparingly, and provide some neat surprises.
But nothing surprised me more than the fact that, not only was I bowled over by the precision and commitment that brought together this bona fide tour de force of theatre, but also that I enjoyed it so much on its own terms. The journey back in time that we take in The Man Who Laughs is neither academic exercise or gimmicky theme park ride—it's a genuine immersion in a kind of storytelling that, for all its apparent hokeyness and naiveté, has the real capacity to tug at something inside of us and make us feel in a raw, spontaneous, and very essential way. Bravo.