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'Red Noses' a romp through slapstick and pathos

Sometimes, laughter is the best — perhaps the only — response when our lives are overwhelmed by disaster. At least, that is the response offered in “Red Noses,” playwright Peter Barnes’ irreverent, raucous commentary on life, death and the meaning of it all.

“Red Noses” is set in France in 1349. The Black Plague is everywhere. (It killed one-third of Europe’s population.) People sicken and die at random, and there is no cure. In the midst of this catastrophe, Father Flote, a lowly friar, has a vision that the only solace, the only respite, lies in laughter.

Using elements from commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, the circus and broad slapstick, “Red Noses” follows the humble friar and his motley troupe of actors, misfits, assassins and wayward nuns as they wander through plague-ravaged France, bringing humor to the hopeless in the most outrageous and bawdy ways.

“Red Noses” opens Thursday, Nov. 13, in the Center Stage Theatre on the Southern Oregon University campus, off South Mountain Avenue, in Ashland. Performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 13-15 and 21-22, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 22 and 23. Tickets cost $21, $18 for seniors and $6 for students, and can be purchased at the Performing Arts box office in the SOU Music Recital Hall, online at sou.edu/performing arts or by calling 541-552-6348.

SOU notes that “Red Noses” contains content suitable for mature audiences.

James Donlon, internationally known movement theater artist and assistant professor in SOU’s Theatre Arts Department, directs. He sees “Red Noses” as an important play for these times.

“It is a play about how a society faces widespread catastrophe,” Donlon says. “We are facing disasters every day — Ebola, Katrina, 9/11, wars, earthquakes, typhoons — that challenge our survival and shake our faith in established institutions and their solutions. This play takes a satiric look at how power structures cope with challenges to their authority.”

Donlon compares Father Flote and his zany band to the classic fool or clown like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton or, in contemporary times, Robin Williams or Lenny Bruce. Traditionally, the fool has the freedom of speech to say things that are revolutionary. But there are often consequences for this freedom.

“'Red Noses’ is a challenging play for student actors and designers,” Donlon says. “It is a very physical play — there is a lot of movement. And it is emotionally challenging as well, requiring actors to run the gamut from broad slapstick humor to pathos.”

Donlon’s 27-member cast is made up of students in their senior year of SOU's Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, including Sarah Brizek, Nicole Bruno, Connor Bryant, Lucas Caldwell, Margaret Chambers, Austin Comfort, Rebecca Curtis, Truett Felt, Dominique Francis, Halli Gibson, Alice Glass, Nash Hascall, Mike Hays, Reid Honeywell, Rachel Kostrna, Tamra Mathias, Joe Murley, Scott Padian, Jacob Phillips, Shanti Ryle, Neal Schoonmaker, Henry Steelhammer, Lakia Solomon, Moira Todd, Robin Waisanen, Devin White and Beth Woodruff.

Although the play is set in medieval Europe, the stage action takes place on a set that is a combination of circus tent and vaudeville hall. Scenic design and lighting design are by SOU faculty members Sean O’Skea and Noah Beauregard, with costumes and sound design by SOU students Paige Snodgrass and Cory Jewell.

Playwright Peter Barnes is best known for his wildly irreverent play and subsequent movie, “The Ruling Class,” starring Peter O’Toole. “Red Noses” was written in 1978 and received its first production at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1985. It won the Laurence Olivier Award that year for Best New Play.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Clockwise from left: Tamra Mathias, Austin Comfort, Nicole Bruno and Mike Hays play a troupe of fools in Southern Oregon University's production of 'Red Noses,' running through Sunday, Nov. 23, in the Center Stage Theatre. Photo courtesy of Greg Eliason