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Laugh to Keep From Crying
By Kathryn Ceceri

He Who Gets Slapped
Book by Ray Sipherd, music by Arthur B. Rubinstein, lyrics by Ray Sipherd and Arthur B. Rubinstein
The Theater Company at Hubbard Hall, through May 30

He Who Gets Slapped, re ceiving its world premiere at Hubbard Hall, is a show firmly in the tradition of Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd: Itís less musical comedy than musical tragedy. Despite its circus setting (wonderfully evoked through the scenery of assemblage artist Karen Koziol) any gaiety here is thickly underlaid by a deep-seated discontent that at any moment could seep through to the surface. From the playís wild-eyed title character, a clown with a disturbing new act, to the beautiful tightwire dancer with a taste for expensive jewels, thereís not a figure who doesnít combine the sympathetic with the repulsive. The performances, directed by Hubbard Hall artistic director Kevin McGuire, are stunning; the score by movie veteran Arthur B. Rubinstein is sophisticated; and the book by Ray Sipherd, who with Rubinstein also wrote the lyrics, successfully conveys a mood of dark cynicism. So dark is it, in fact, that its comic interludes arenít quite enough to give the audience relief from the doom they know must be at hand; and the complexity of Rubinsteinís music, for all its power, makes it unlikely anyone will be walking out of the theater humming its tunes.

The story, which streamlines somewhat the early-20th-century play by Russian author Leonid Andreyev on which it is based, revolves around He (Kirk Mouser), a disturbing vagabond who appears at the Cirque de Paris in 1930s France with a new idea for a clown act: He provokes the audience with uncomfortable truths until they lash out, and then laugh, at him. Papa Briquet, the circusí owner (McGuire), is trying vainly to bring some life to his big topís tired acts, which include Zinida, his wife (Sandra Bargman), who looks as though her spiked heels and whip see some use outside the tiger cage as well as in it. M. Reynard (Dan Sharkey), a wealthy gentleman in top hat and tails whoís thinking about buying Briquetís circus, does everything but twirl his mustache in villainy (heís also the only one unmoved by Heís taunts, even when the clown sinks to jibes about his mother). But his real object seems to be the beautiful Consuelo (Mariah Sanford-White), who doesnít mind Reynardís attention but secretly yearns for her irresistible partner Bezano (Adam Jansson), young, handsome, and practically bursting out his tights with virility. I particularly liked the clown troupe (Brian Foley, Josh Gray and Charlotte Pines), which served as a kind of Greek chorus, reflecting and commenting upon the action when not dragging audience members onstage.

The production is graced with a cast that sings as well it acts, putting heart and soul into every number, and an orchestra (musical director Richard Cherry on piano, Sam Farkas on banjo and guitar, Bill Jensen on drums and Melinda Speidel on reeds) that handles the difficult score with hardly a misstep. Koziol has turned Hubbard Hallís theater space completely around to create her circus, placing the orchestra beneath the balcony, which doubles as catwalk, behind a translucent screen, and the audience on risers leading up to and right onto the stage. Ropes, ladders, umbrellas, and a fantastically decorated full-length mirror frame suggest excitement, movement and airy heights.

Does He Who Gets Slapped have what it takes to move to off-Broadway, its apparent goal? Yes, when it comes to quality. The question is whether audiences will embrace a show that causes such unease, where any satisfaction to be had is bittersweet at best.

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