RED NOSES, Push and Shove, Inc., at Stage Left Theatre. In 1348 the black death killed a third of Europe, mocking secular and sacred authority with its indiscriminate slaughter. Similarly, British playwright Peter Barnes (author of The Ruling Class) cocks a snook at today's powers that be, though his protagonists are from the era of the bubonic plague: the Red Noses of Auxerre, a band of anarchic comics who prescribed laughter when every other cure had failed.

Life-loving dreamer Father Flote assembles a ragtag ensemble from the town's dregs who concoct hilariously irreverent spoofs of Everyman and King Herod. Initially encouraged by the pope as a distraction from the church's helplessness in the face of mass death, the Red Noses (aka Christ's Clowns, God's Zanies, the Holy Rollers, and the Brotherhood of Joy) are inevitably executed, along with other members of fringe groups like the predatory Black Ravens and the self-mutilating flagellants.

Premiered here by the Goodman Theatre in 1987, Red Noses is a generous entertainment, a vaudevillian romp full of groaner puns and whiplash one-liners ("I suffer for my art and so should you"). Barnes gets a ton of laughs from pestilence and persecution. But Mark Reynolds's rather plodding staging makes these comics die the wrong way. Led by Andrew Dannhorn's childlike Flote, this production honors Barnes's rich script yet makes you wonder if the pope didn't condemn these "heretics of happiness" for their clumsy comedy rather than their sedition.

--Lawrence Bommer

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