The tears of a clown

Clive Barker finds plenty to horrify in the strange world of a medieval

Horror maestro Clive Barker has been busy. Disney purchased the rights to his still-unfinished children’s tale “Arabat” for $8 million, and the conglomerate is already working on a movie and theme park built around the rough sketches of Barker’s decidedly dark trilogy. The Liverpool-based writer’s new TV show “Saint Sinner” debuted on the USA cable network recently with decent ratings, while sales are still relatively brisk for his video game “Undying.” Meanwhile, his wondrous play, “Crazyface,” based on “The Forms of Heaven,” successfully combines the epic storytelling of “Imagica” and the gallows humor of “Hellraiser.”

In the Mary Worth Theatre Company’s production, Dylan Fresco stars as Tyl Eulenspiegel, also known as Crazyface, a feckless, accordion-playing clown whose only loyal companion is a dead fish that is tied to a rope connected to his waist. His aging mother Ella, played by Randy Latimer, has disowned Crazyface and blames her retarded bastard offspring for the marked decline of her highly dysfunctional family. Tyl’s treacherous brother Lenny, played by David Silvester, is a criminally insane mass murderer with an eerie, child-like falsetto voice. Tyl’s hooker girlfriend Annie, played by Natalie Diem, constantly fantasizes about getting a sex change in order to compete in a highly misogynistic society.

Set in the middle of the Dark Ages, Crazyface is haunted by a practical joke-loving angel, played by Tim McGivern, whose expressed sole purpose is to make his life as miserable as possible. Tyl’s life is threatened further by an evil Spanish Inquisition-type priest, played by Steve Lewis, after Tyl innocently stumbles onto a box containing a handful of cocoa beans and the recipe for chocolate. Bloody warfare erupts as Spain, England, France and Italy vie for control of the world’s chocolate supply.

“The Lowlands are ash, thousands have died Ö for chocolate?” asks Lenny incredulously to the priest. The grotesque and the hilarious intertwine themselves deliciously as the Mary Worth team simultaneously celebrates the highs and lows of the old country’s rich medieval past. Not since the 1987 film “The Princess Bride” has a torture chamber been so gleefully funny yet profoundly terrifying.

“I saw up there the land turning over in its sleep,” explains Wormwood, a mentally retarded peasant who has critically injured himself while attempting to fly off a church roof with homemade wings. “And underneath, like under a stone, such rot.” Lines like that illustrate the point that the dialogue here mainly highlights Barker’s serious jones for William Blake’s poetry. This ineffective attempt at loftiness is a hit and miss affair, perhaps the play’s solitary shortcoming.

Since it is held in the tiny confines of the People’s Center, the production is a minimalist affair. However, costume designer Mary Culligan makes masterful use of a constrained budget. The sets and clothes are awesome, transporting the audience into towns with names like Loon who are populated almost entirely by riot grrrl bandits, filthy beggars and lecherous cripples. Of course, spreading out 65 believable parts between 14 players is an astounding accomplishment in and of itself.

Whether it is a crazed family of pig breeders, an uncaring Pope or ill-mannered lesbians struggling with a horse costume, Crazyface is constantly greeted with macabre levels of cruelty. Abounding with surreal gore and quixotic plot twists, this is wacky vaudeville rich with burlesque gender bending. To be sure, this simpleton-as-prophet ground has already been covered in Voltaire’s “Candide.” Also, the play makes overt references to Danish folklore. Regardless of its varied antecedents, this whimsical play retains the exhilarating feel of commedia dell’arte fables while subversively sneaking wicked political satire into the mix for good measure.

According to popular legend, clowning started back in ancient Rome’s Colosseum. After someone was sacrificed, a man would rush out, peel and then wear the victim’s skin over his head and dance around, making fun of the victim to the delight of the crowd. As prisoners were placed in a large metal sphere called “the Globe,” a fire was set and clowns would dance around while the onlookers encouraged the dying screams. With spectacular historical background like that, Barker (or anyone else for that matter) would be hard-pressed not to write something noteworthy about the profession.

“Crazyface” plays through March 8 at The Cedar Riverside People’s Center, (612) 879-9075

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]