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Theater Review (NYC): The Man Who Laughs – A Live Silent Film for the Stage

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Stolen Chair‘s delightful new production of The Man Who Laughs, a show they originally staged in 2005, is a well-played novelty with several layers of dramatic and historical interest beyond the sheer fun of seeing a show that’s staged just like a black and white silent film, with live piano accompaniment (by the excellent Eugene Ma), and projected title cards replacing spoken dialogue.

Based on the 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name, this comic tragedy concerns thwarted love, class divisions, and the universal relevance of the freak show. (A real silent film of the story was released in 1928). Though set in 17th century England it could take place – or at least be phantasmagorically imagined – just about anywhere and anytime. If you’re familiar with the Batman universe’s Joker character, you’ll get the trope of “the man who laughs.” An orphan named Gwynplaine is kidnapped by unholy “comprachicos” who mutilate his face into a permanent rictus in order to profit by showing him off as a freak.


Dave Droxler in the title role of The Man Who Laughs, photo by Carrie Leonard

Later, abandoned, he adopts a blind baby off the breast of a frozen-to-death mother, and with his tiny charge finds refuge at the home of a ventriloquist and showman named Ursus. Years later, with baby Dea now a comely young woman, Ursus creates a successful comic act featuring “The Blind Beauty” and “The Man Who Laughs,” a show that climaxes, in this telling, with a brilliantly staged live-marionette sequence. This centerpiece of the show may be worth the price of admission in itself. But life never just goes on, whatever your era or country or line of work. Gwynplaine isn’t content as merely a comical figure to be laughed it. And a fateful encounter with a slumming Duchess and her foppish admirer threatens to bring the tent down over the heads of the makeshift family troupe.

The six-person cast (with two fine mummers playing Gwynplaine at different ages) has gleefully mastered the humorous, stylized form of silent acting required by this form of entertainment, directed assuredly by Stolen Chair co-founder Jon Stancato from a script (if “script” is the right word) by Kiran Rikhye. But, as in any circus, equally important in this production is the technical work, notably the lighting design by Daniel Winters, the dusky sets by Michael Minahan, the leering makeup by Jaclyn Schaefer and Stephanie Cox-Williams, and the overall technical direction by Peter Russo, who has worked with the remarkable puppet troupe Wakka Wakka. This team has created a bright, vivid world on a stage drained of color and voices, fashioning a truly unusual entertainment. The Man Who Laughs runs through Feb. 24 at Urban Stages. Visit the Stolen Chair website for tickets and more information.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Igor

    Interesting. I’ve seen the original silent film (I have a video dub of it here someplace).

    IIRC there is at least one “Wallender” episode titled “The Laughing Man”.

  • Tom Ciorciari

    Saw a performance of this amazing show last Thursday night. For afficionados of not only of left-of-center theater, but silent film as well. Brilliantly scripted, staged and acted. Technically breath-taking. The audience I saw this performance with loved every second. A must-see for anyone who truly loves theater; pure visual poetry!