Really good satire always walks a fine line. Humor can be a balm or a goad. If laughter can defuse an explosive situation, it may also ignite it.
That is the not-so-subtle point of Peter Barnes’ “Red Noses,” now playing at Southern Oregon University’s Oregon Center for the Arts in its Center Stage Theatre.
“Red Noses” is a raucous, irreverent romp with an edge, taking aim at every form of hypocrisy. Playwright Barnes is an equal opportunity offender — he may speak truth to power but he also skewers optimistic innocence.
The play is set in France in 1348. The Black Plague is everywhere. There is no cure. People sicken and die at random. The institutional Church provides no explanation. A humble friar, Father Flote, seeks God’s guidance. How can he offer some solace to the victims of this devastation?
He finds his answer in providing outrageous laughter. He gathers a mismatched band of performers — a lustful nun, a blind juggler, a stuttering comic, a mercenary who longs to be an artist, two one-legged dancers and a bored aristocrat. They roam through towns and villages offering everything from hilariously bad vaudeville routines to pointedly irreligious allegory plays.
But when the Plague has run its course, the Church hierarchy no longer encourages Flote and his troupe as a useful distraction. Flote may believe that “every jest should be a small revolution,” but he ruefully learns that mockery is tolerated only when it is not a threat. Speaking truth to power has fatal consequences.
“Red Noses” is a very physical play. Playwright Barnes uses elements from commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, slapstick and pure acrobatics to punctuate his stylized and, at times, outrageously bawdy dialogue. SOU assistant professor James Donlon, who teaches performance with an emphasis on movement, directs.
Donlon is an internationally known body movement and mime artist. He has skillfully choreographed his 27-member student cast to convey chaos, horror and joyful anarchy. If, at times, there is more movement than acting, and the dialogue is hard to hear, the pure physicality is broad enough to convey the thought.
The set, designed by Sean O’Skea, an assistant professor of scenic design in the Theatre Arts Department, is part down-at-the-heels circus tent, part grubby town square and part shabby vaudeville proscenium. The on-stage scaffolding serves as a pedestal, a gallows or a pyre. The costumes by student designer Paige Snodgrass are a bit medieval, a bit vaudeville, a bit punk and totally outrageous — the dominatrix leather outfit for the male leader of the band of flagellants is particularly inspired.
The SOU theater season is designed to showcase the acting and technical skills of the Theatre Arts Department’s students. This production of “Red Noses” makes it clear that these students are prepared for any professional challenge.
“Red Noses” plays through Nov. 23 at SOU’s Center Stage Theatre. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets cost for $21 regular admission, $18 for seniors and $6 for students and are available at the Performing Arts Box Office in the SOU Music Recital Hall lobby, noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and two hours prior to each performance, by calling 541-552-6348 and online at sou.edu/performing arts.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.