Dr. Guillaume-Amant Duchenne de Boulogne, hereafter referred to as Dr. Duchenne, a 19th Century neurologist and widely considered the founder of the discipline, was the first to use electric shock (he called it “électropuncture”) as a therapy to stimulate muscles. He was a serious scientist and is credited with the discovery of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Around the time of the American Civil War, he experimented with the use of electrodes to induce facial expression in mimicry of true emotion, recording the results with photographs.
Playwright David Bridel’s Lunatics &Actors, given a remarkable premiere by Four Clowns at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, puts Dr. Duchenne (the indefatigable Thaddeus Shafer) on stage giving a lecture/demonstration of his research to a time-warped, Twenty-first Century audience. He speaks of having seen Edwin Booth’s Hamlet. Is he here or are we there? Doesn’t matter. Clowns!
In an improvisational style, Duchenne calls for volunteers from the audience to participate. He wants three actors, of which, this being Los Angeles, there is always an abundance, to come on down. After quizzing each of the volunteers, he selects one to demonstrate various emotions such as an actor might be called on to perform. The volunteer I saw was a good sport, going along with the often-ridiculous demands of Dr. Duchenne. It reminded me of a time I saw a Cirque du Soleil clown pull a modestly willing audience member from the front row.
Since the lecture is being given in an asylum, he summons to the stage his three pet lunatics – Bon-Bon (Tyler Bremer). Fifi (Alexis Jones) and Pepe (Andrew Eldredge). He then proceeds to demonstrate with his machine how he can induce authentic emotional responses in his patients though the application of electro-shock.
The trio of performers – Bremer, Jones and Eldredge – pull out the stops. They are improvisational in interacting with audience. They are in-your-face lively and heart breaking. They are at once hilarious and creepy. Understand these “patients” are the grand-guignol, over-the-top, straight-jacketed, Marat/Sade type lunatics. In no way should this be construed as demeaning or belittling the plight of the mentally ill. This is comedy created by clowns.
The capstone of the evening is a stunning précis of Hamlet, essentially the whole play, given a blisteringly fast, frenetically choreographed, mime version that is just stunning to witness, followed by a surprisingly touching dénoument.
Lunatics & Actors, under the astute direction of Jeremy Aluma, is innovative theatre at its very best, entertaining and thought provoking. It has a short run of only twelve performances, fewer depending on when a reader sees this. It closes on May 28 at the Shakespeare Center. With ticket prices an amazing $12-15 (what you would pay for a seat at the Arclight), there is no excuse for missing this show.