Boxed In

Were it not for flashes of great performances and ingenuity, it would be easy to dismiss Constellation's 'Crazyface'

by Tom Avila
Published on May 28, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

Part of the issue with Constellation Theatre Company's production of Clive Barker's Crazyface is that it's the production of a play written by Clive Barker.

Right now you're asking yourself, ''The Hellraiser guy?''

The reality is that Barker is a prolific artist whose work spans from novels to comics to the plastic arts. But he is also a playwright, having created a good deal of work for a number of theatrical troupes. Crazyface was written in 1982 as part of a trio of summer workshops Barker was invited to write for the Cockpit Youth Theatre.

CrazyFace
CrazyFace
(Photo by Daniel Schwartz)

But it is Hellraiser and Weaveworld and Abarat that come to mind when most folks think of Barker, which makes him an unexpected name and an intriguing draw.

Crazyface is an epic play in every sense of the word. It boasts a large cast of characters that includes a mean-spirited angel, female bandits, crippled religious pilgrims and an assortment of fools. It involves a long journey whose destination is equal parts geographic and spiritual. And it is intended to convey a complex moral lesson that defies chronological time and place. It's huge. Immense. Far larger than the stage of the Source.

Which could have been a great thing.

An intriguing and fantastically inspired mix of fairy tale and satire, imagination and indictment, the play demands a fearless, cocksure execution that Constellation does not consistently achieve. When the company trusts their craft and skill, they bring this odd narrative satisfyingly to the stage. But when they second guess or feel the weight of the author and his portfolio, they stumble.

Unfortunately they stumble more than they shine.

Crazyface is the story of Tyl Eulenspiegel (Ashley Ivey), a fool known as Crazyface, who sets out to deliver a tiny wooden box to the Vatican. The box, he has been told, contains the glory of the universe.

So, of course, everyone wants the box.

Most fixated on the item is the Court of Spain, from whom it was originally stolen. Desperate to see the box returned the king's most ruthless torturer, Mengo (Lisa Lias), comes to a contract with one of her most dangerous prisoners. A deranged madman, Lenny (Joseph Thornhill) happily accepts Mengo's offer to pursue Tyl because it will allow him to settle a debt of his own.

Throw in a wedding at a pig farm and a horse that talks from both ends and you have the basic idea. There are moments when the skill and immense talent of Constellation glows as brightly as its namesake. More often than not these are the most simple of elements -- the brilliantly choreographed and executed fall of the flying man, the childlike sketch that is the wings of The Angel, the tone of the play's opening moments when we meet Crazyface and his family.

As the show's lead, Ivey demonstrates that he is a skillful performer who's taken full advantage of the opportunity to develop Tyl into a brilliantly realized character. The historic elements of the fool character cleanly joined to the creation of something new and unique.

CRAZYFACE
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Source Theatre
1835 14th St. NW
To June 14
$15-$20
1-800-494-8497
www.constellationtheatre.org

Most everyone else in the production is wearing more than a few hats (and masks) to bring this world to life and, while it is never actually confusing, it begins to feel a bit unresolved. Like a quick-change vaudeville show where things become less about what is going on onstage than on making sure the stage is always filled and folks are in the right costume.

And there are moments where it feels as though the company does not trust its own good instincts and decides to push for something larger than this stage can contain. They trade clever solutions (like the flying man) for dry ice, shrieks, hissing figures and stock effects that are unimaginative. They give violence without elegance in a play that offers such terrible but poetic images as a torture wheel half in fire, half in ice.

Were it not for the flashes of great performances and ingenuity it would be quite easy to dismiss Crazyface. But the artistry is there. It is simply resting half-hidden and dim.