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Theater review: 'Red Noses' at the Ivy Substation

October 9, 2011 |  3:04 pm


The Black Death meets Belle Barth and Monty Python in "Red Noses," which opens the 30th anniversary season at the Actors' Gang with grave lunacy. Peter Barnes' dark comedy about a priest on a mission to pull laughter from destruction receives an austerely droll revival. 

First produced in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company as the AIDS epidemic burgeoned, "Red Noses" exudes the irreverence characteristic of Barnes' "The Ruling Class." Set in 1348 France, the narrative follows Father Flote (Jeremie Loncka, beatifically poised), his response to the horror felling one-third of Europe underpinning Barnes' slender premise.

As scavengers and flagellants ferociously negotiate the body count, Father Flote has an epiphany. If ecclesiastic methods cannot heal the masses, joy can lift their spirits, provided by a new order of Christ's clowns.

The motley troupe that ensues appalls pious Father Toulon (Nathan Kornelis), despite sanction by Pope Clement VI (Mary Eileen O'Donnell, resonant as ever). "What would you call a priest consorting with a lusty, wanton nun?" says Flote. "Lucky," says the pope.

Director Dominique Serrand oversees the proceedings with equal parts anachronistic glee and hieratic restraint. Stripping the Ivy Substation of scenery, Serrand has effective assets in Rosalida Medina's quirky costumes, Jacqueline Reid's spare lighting and certainly the large, accomplished cast.

Loncka tosses off one-liners with a wry composure that counters his colleagues' shtick, their loopy panache emblematic of the company's signature ensemble discipline. Pierre Adeli's head scavenger and Jon Kellam's chief flagellant are agreeably bombastic, Adam Jefferis' and Jean-Louis Darville's assassins-turned-Flotists suavely raucous. Steven M. Porter's blind juggler, Cihan Sahin's unidexterous mime and Will Thomas McFadden's stammering standup typify the group dementia, and, as sex-starved Sister Marguerite, the redoubtable Cynthia Ettinger nearly steals the show.

Everybody's fine work almost camouflages the central flaw: There's as much sanctimony as sass to Barnes' script, which succumbs to repetitive overreach as plague's end brings a return to church oppression and martyrdom. This subtly infects the whole, its humor sometimes over-gentle, its savagery under-disturbing. Still, there's a nobility to "Red Noses' " levity in the face of chaos, and fans of the troupe should catch it.

— David C. Nichols

"Red Noses," Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Nov. 19. $25. (310) 838-4264 or Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Photo: Jeremie Loncka, left, Mary Eileen O'Donnell. Credit: Dominique Serrand