CULVER CITY — Dramatist Leonid Andreyev fell out of favor in his native Russia soon after the 1917 revolution. His "He Who Gets Slapped" is Singular Productions' season opener at the Ivy Substation, and it is steeped in a dreamlike, hyper-symbolic mysticism that must have seemed dangerously effete to the sturdy leaders of the new Soviet order.
Set behind the scenes of a European circus, the play provides a sterling opportunity for director Yuri Belov to bring his eclectic disciplines to bear. A Russian emigre who has worked as a clown trainer for both the Moscow Circus and Ringling Bros., Belov is more than an expatriate clown. As director, he has spanned the gamut from music hall to the Stanislavsky Drama Theater. Add to that Belov's new translation, and the sum total is a vibrant and accessible production that succeeds both as entertainment and allegory.
The evening opens with a pre-show outside the Substation, a purely playful clown routine that gives little hint of the torrid undercurrents into which Andreyev's drama will soon plunge. The canvas walls of Belov's simple set, beautifully lit by Frank McKown, set the backstage locale of the Cirque Briquet, a milieu vividly evoked by Snezana Petrovic's costumes and Michael Fracassi's sound design.
Papa Briquet (Bryan Rasmussen), the circus' gruff but humane owner and ringmaster, is a weary observer of his troupe's follies. Briquet's animal trainer wife Zinida (Gail Godown) obsessively tries to inspire devotion in her savage big cats--a pursuit as futile as her adoration for Bezano (Pascal Marcotte), the circus trick rider. Bezano, in turn, hopelessly adores his riding partner Consuelo (Melissa Simon), a pure young beauty whose avaricious father, the Count Mancini (Alden Millikan), intends to marry her off to a soulless millionaire (Patrick McGowan). Also interlaced throughout the action are various clowns who function as a sort of commedia chorus for Andreyev's cryptic parable.
Into this gallery of lovers, liars and fools wafts the mysterious He (a luminous Michael David Edwards, reminiscent of Jean-Louis Barrault in "Children of Paradise"). A nameless enigma, He becomes He Who Gets Slapped, whose act consists of absorbing dozens of blows before a howling audience. A Gentleman Caller (Todd Merrill), apparently the leader of a sun-worshiping cult inspired by He's teachings, gives us some clue as to He's identity. However, whether He is a deposed deity, as He intimates, or a lunatic whose passion for Consuelo results in tragedy, remains unclear.
The program credits Belov, McGowan and "the cast" for the adaptation--but this precisely timed, compositionally striking and showmanlike production bespeaks a single artistic vision at its heart. Clownmaster extraordinaire and inspired director, Belov here combines the best elements of both.
* "He Who Gets Slapped," Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; pre-show, 7:45 p.m. Ends Dec. 13. Dark Thanksgiving. $18. (310) 287-3850. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.