“Are there any actors in the audience?” This question, posed by a mad scientist-type character, opens Lunatics & Actors, a world premiere play written by David Bridel and presented by Los Angeles-based clown troupe Four Clowns. It is immediately apparent that the fourth wall does not exist in this piece, which is more interactive performance art than traditional play.
Staged at a large, malleable, warehouse-esque space at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in downtown LA and directed by Jeremy Aluma, Lunatics & Actors tells the story of Dr. Duchenne (Thaddeus Shafer), a scientist who claims to have figured out the key to producing authentic human emotion. He selects an actor from three audience volunteers to act as a measure of comparison to his three “lunatic” test subjects—Bon-Bon (Tyler Bremer), Fifi (Alexis Jones), and Pepe (Andrew Eldredge). He begins by having the actor demonstrate various human emotions—surprise, sadness, joy, and so on. He then gives the lunatics an electric shock and a command, at which point they portray their own version of the same emotion. This “experiment” has three phases, each more elaborate, physical, and disturbing than the one before it.
This fictional Dr. Duchenne is based on the real life Duchenne de Boulogne, a 19th century French neurologist known for his work The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression. He used electrical probes to trigger specific facial muscle contractions to produce various expressions, and claimed said expressions were a “gateway to the soul.” The tone of this play is intentionally off-putting at times—the behavior of the “lunatics” is designed to keep the audience on edge, as is the interactive feeling of the piece. It keeps you guessing and just a bit uncomfortable as things escalate towards the disturbing “piece de resistance,” as Dr. Duchenne puts it.
A few scenes overstayed their welcome and became a bit repetitive, most notably the extended opening scene in which the three audience volunteers are asked a lengthy series of questions so that a participant can be properly chosen. As the play becomes increasingly demanding and complex, the astute audience member will rightly begin to question the authenticity of the random volunteers and the selection process, but even the first phase of the “experiment” where the actor and the lunatics act out emotions dragged on a bit. The point being made was quickly clear, although it was fun to see the truly impressive, physical performances by the members of the clown troupe playing the lunatics.
The action picks up when the participants in Dr. Duchenne’s experiment move on to more elaborate acting—namely, scenes from Hamlet, clearly chosen for its thematic relevance. For a play that relies on the presence of actors in its audience, it ironically does not have very nice things to say about the profession. It’s of course done in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it’s essentially implied that actors are more insane (or, at least, more inauthentic) than lunatics.
Four Clowns is known for creating productions that reexamine the relationship between the performers and the audience, and this play was no exception. Whether or not you always want to be, you are very much a part of the story, and you’ll probably pause for a second to contemplate next time you find yourself swept up in a strong emotion.
Lunatics & Actors runs for 12 performances only on Fridays, Saturdays, and select Thursdays through May 28th. The show is approximately 80 minutes long. Tickets range from $12-15 and can be purchased at www.fourclowns.org.