FOUR CLOWNS & A BENCH
Hope and Nonthings Productions
at Heartland Studio Theatre
It's difficult to know where to place Ian Pierce in the current crop of young playwrights. Too linguistically playful to be classified with straightforward storytellers but putting function ahead of form too often to be counted with the word jugglers, Pierce seems to enjoy playing with both elements, forcing his audience to choose their own focus.
Four Clowns & a Bench, Pierce's latest offering, is set in a secluded corner of a public park. Here we meet Godwin, a present-day Harlequin whose quick wit has not been impaired by his drinking--"a lot"--and subsequently passing out on the park bench (though he claims to live in a house). Shelley drinks a lot, too--in bars, where she waxes alternately seductive and hostile toward the men she picks up. One night, by Godwin's very bench, she loses her shoe while fending off one of her drinking buddies, and the search for the lost shoe brings these two misfits together in a tentative kind of love (with the assistance/interference of Nero, the spurned suitor, and Newt, Godwin's stubbornly rational sidekick).
"Harmony is the ignorant and potentially harmful denial of chaos," Godwin declares early in the play. Pierce's language tests the truth of this assertion, reflecting a giddy kind of chaos that all but obscures the simplicity of his argument. He scrambles together metaphors ("If sound were light," Godwin rhapsodizes, "your voice would sparkle in the distance brighter than all the stars in the sky") and plenty of old-fashioned one-two gags (after Shelley and Godwin, napping on the bench, roll off Shelley asks, "You haven't fallen in love with me, have you?" to which Godwin replies, "No, I've just fallen off a bench with you--let's take this one step at a time"). There are even a few one-liners--"I've got enough caffeine in me to jump-start a motor home," Newt announces. If this all-but-nonstop repartee grows precious at times, Pierce's refusal to say what he has to say conventionally at least jostles us gently to attention: we learn, more intuitively than didactically, from the fates of his characters.
Steve Walker's fast-paced, almost slapstick staging of this Hope and Nonthings production also contributes. The most notable performance comes from the mercurial Timothy Vahle as Godwin (one of the chief reasons to have seen Pierce's recent Road and the River): Vahle's pixilated innocence renders charming a character who could easily have degenerated into a know-it-all bully. As Newt, Matthew J. O'Neill (another alumnus of Road and the River) repeats the buttoned-up, Mister Normal turn he does so well. Jackie Katzman plays Shelley with a sharp-edged fragility, and John G. Tiliakos's Nero is the quintessential fall guy.
In his program bio Pierce is called "nothing but a confused man's distance between pen and paper." This might have described the author of his sophomoric The Fragmented Veins of Staci and Cayce, but the current play indicates an increasing concern for coherence with no loss of delightful, startling language. This quirky playwright may not yet know himself what he does, but one looks forward to what he'll do next.
Sharing the Hope and Nonthings bill is Christopher Ellis's Pill, a likewise quirky but nowhere near as coherent one-act. Three people meet in a shabby motel room: Allen, a veteran of the Korean war who's recently robbed a drugstore because he needed aspirin for his headache; Leana, a disheveled and strangely withdrawn young woman dressed in a rumpled school uniform; and Karl, a badly frightened fellow vet who's been looking for the other two.
Leana claims to have murdered her pill-pushing uncle, the pharmacist Allen robbed before raping her. Allen protests that Leana followed him and consented to sex. Karl insists that Allen was killed in the war. And there is some mention of Leana's late mother, run over by an anonymous motorist. Is Leana an avenging ghost? Is that why both men cower before her? Or are they all ghosts--and is that why Allen shrugs off Leana's threatening him with his own gun?
Though this production boasts the expertise of Wisdom Bridge Theatre's Terry McCabe as director, Pill's enigmatic narrative leaves no stronger impression than the nagging memory of a mid-60s pop song based on a similar premise.