In a bizarre and often outrageous episodic comedy now playing at the Clark Street Playhouse just north of Crystal City, a medieval friar dons a clown's nose to bring just a bit of cheer to the victims of the worst plague ever to spread its deadly touch around the world. "God wants red noses, not black bodies" becomes the mantra of a traveling troupe trying in the worst way to divert attention, if only for a moment, from the bubonic plague which killed as many as 75 million people worldwide including as much as half the population of Europe in the fourteenth century.
If it seems incongruous that a contemporary playwright would find humor in such a deadly subject, note that this playwright has both a tradition of incongruity and an apparent fascination with the twists and turns of history. His other plays find humor and drama over a span of history that runs from the reign of Ivan the Terrible of Russia to the Holocaust.
That playwright is Peter Barnes, a British writer who churned out both plays and scripts for movies and television shows. He won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in London in 1985 for this black comedy. It is a strange comedy that mixes historical fact with chronologically impossible elements. For example, Pope Clement IV whose Papacy was spent in Avignon, France, during the time of the Black Death, is shown wearing a gas mask under his miter.
What is more, the revelers take a Styrofoam cooler on their picnic. Indeed, the "red noses" of the title are distinctly twentieth-century contraptions. They are plastic balls sliced in half and held in place by elastic bands.
The principal wearer of a red nose is John C. Bailey, who, as the friar who wants to bring a bit of humor to his flock, delivers a rock-solid performance - one of those performances that are a pleasure to watch not only when his character is front and center but when he's off to one side supporting the rest of the cast and helping to maintain the high-intensity frivolity of the mood of the entire piece.
The rest of the cast is both numerous and talented. There are twenty of them all told and they include Evan Crump as a stuttering standup comic, Caitlin Smith as a one-legged ballerina and Christopher Henley as the aforementioned gas mask wearing Pope. Not your typical lineup of standard characters by any means.
Certainly, not all the gags work and there are a few lapses in logic. But on the whole, the company does a good job keeping a sprawling, somewhat overlong work moving and making sense. There are moments of delight to enjoy as the troupe spreads a little happiness, if not among the victims of the Black Death of the 1340s, then at least among the audience in 2008.
<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (<a href=http://www.PotomacStages.com> www.PotomacStages.com</a>). He can be reached at <a href=mailto:Brad@PotomacStages.co> Brad@PotomacStages.com </a>m.</i>