Derklöwnshpankeneffekt: Two Plays for Klöwn

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
Manbites Dog Theater
Through April 6

Just before the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously predicted, “When the people have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”

Two centuries later, Polish dissident and playwright Slawomir Mrozek stood at Rousseau’s grave, yelling, “So, where are the recipes, you fool?”

OK, perhaps the last part didn’t actually happen. Still, that seems to be what Mrozek is doing in his absurd, politically pointed one-acts Out at Sea and Striptease, presented by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern under the title Derklöwnshpankeneffekt.

The terrain will be familiar to those who’ve followed this show’s principal artists over the years. In 2000, actors Jay O’Berski and Jeffrey Detwiler helmed an astonishing slapstick critique of American political injustice, A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti. In 2010, both were featured in ANARCHIST!, an equally memorable adaptation of Nobel laureate Dario Fo.

Those who saw either will have high expectations for the new show. Though the laughs in this reunion remain plentiful under Michael O’Foghludha’s direction, Derklöwnshpankeneffekt lacks some of the hellzapoppin’ mania in both.

Out at Sea would seem ideal for the madcap excesses in those outings. In it, three men who have run out of food on a lifeboat (O’Berski, Detwiler and Carl Martin, who also appeared in Sacco and Vanzetti) decide to hold an election (complete with speeches, secret ballots and dirty tricks) to determine which of them will be eaten by the other two.

In Mrozek’s dry, delectable script, the three re-engineer a number of familiar campaign ploys and pitches to prove why they shouldn’t be elected as the other’s meal. The rhetoric they use in urging the others to submit themselves instead eerily reflects recruiting discourse for the military.

But sluggish timing on Friday night, perhaps exacerbated by designer Chad Evans’ endlessly rocking boat, made some of the old-school physical comedy bits seem pasted onto the script instead of springing organically from it.

In both one-acts, Mrozek focuses on his characters’ complicity in their own oppression. Though two imprisoned bourgeoisie mouth philosophical positions about their predicament in Striptease, their actions only exacerbate their bondage.

O’Berski’s character apes an existential posture, sanctimoniously endorsing an “internal freedom” that can only be maintained as long he never chooses sides in any conflict. Though Detwiler’s character takes a different course, Mrozek demonstrates how little their philosophical distinctions matter to a totalitarian regime.

The physical comedy is sporadically effective and Nicola Bullock’s absurdist choreography conveys the coercion of a culture in which lip service is optional but obedience to authority is mandatory. Still, American audiences may be nonplussed by Mrozek’s fantastical representation of the long arm of the law, not to mention the script’s abrupt end.

Does the show’s title mean that, no matter how much a representative system abuses them, the clowns keep coming back for more? If so, in this collection of sociopolitical gags, the largest joke remains on us.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Getting fooled again.”