Manbites Dog Theater
703 Foster St., Durham
Through Dec. 19

On “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” the young Bob Dylan relates his dream of surviving a nuclear apocalypse. Written just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the song veers between gallows humor, social criticism and optimism. In the end, the singer offers an antidote for dreams he says everyone has, in which they find themselves alone after civilization’s end: “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”

Actor Rob Jansen takes that stratagem to an extreme in THE TRAMP’S NEW WORLD, Manbites Dog Theater’s second production this season to focus on a post-atomic-disaster future. The one-person show adapts an unfinished screenplay James Agee wrote for Charlie Chaplin in 1947. Agee begged Chaplin to bring back his iconic character, the Tramp, for a script described as being “so dark it was without precedent.” In it, the Tramp is one of a few survivors after an atomic bomb blast over New York. Though the two artists became fast friends, Chaplin never made the film, and the script fell into obscurity until researcher John Wranovics uncovered it while working on a book in 2005.

On a sparse set rendered even more barren by Dustbowl-era furniture, props and costuming, this vivid production segues between the real world and the meta-world of Agee’s script. After a silent opening processional grimly underlines the scarcity of comfort and potable water in a new American wasteland, Jansen’s voice breaks the stillness as he reads from a blistered piece of paper, which is revealed as Agee’s first letter to Chaplin. Then Jansen solemnly conveys the document to an audience member in the front row.

Fair warning: It’s the first of many participatory moments. Jansen not only recruits audience members to assist him as he assembles a makeshift stage, projector and screen, he also casts them as characters in Agee’s tale as it veers between the bleakness of post-apocalyptic isolation and the joy of finding anyone still alive.

At first, Jansen’s character is something of a trickster figure from the realm of silent movies who communicates through gestures and facial expressions. Later, he convincingly impersonates the Tramp in sequences combining live action and film. Improbably, a stark production shimmers with delight during Jansen’s pratfalls and physical humor. He demonstrates an old theatrical rubric: If you’re taking an audience somewhere dark, leave lots of lights on along the way.

But the trompe l’oeil film tricks threaten to drag before they escalate the plot. And if even momentary audience participation can be discomfiting, what was it like for the spectator who was cast in an extended scene as the Tramp’s romantic interest and subsequently entrusted with a (symbolic) baby?

Agee’s anti-war, anti-nuke script is a noble work despite some soapboxing. Under Joseph Megel’s direction, this production takes us deeper into Agee’s desolate dream than some might want to go.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Post-nuclear family”