By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
Gilles Ségal is a former student of Marcel Marceau whose parents were killed by the Nazis, and his current play is an allegory of racist totalitarianism set in an abandoned circus. His works often attempt to evoke horror by running desperately in the other direction, toward threadbare circus-and-puppet fantasies, but they're not flat portraits of escapism. They suggest deliverance through imagination, which makes them hopeful in the deepest sense. The Puppetmaster of Lodz, revived last year by the Marin Theater Company, was a powerful show about a Polish puppeteer who refused to come out of his room because he thought World War II was still raging (in 1950). But in spite of that excellent relative, and a serious, clever author, and an ideal cast, the U.S. premiere in Marin of Mister Schpill and Mister Tippeton stinks.
The names are French, so you need to pronounce them like a Francophone, and when you do they reveal puns: "Schpill" sounds like spiel, the German word for "play," which is what Mr. Schpill does a good deal of the time. (He's a clown.) "Tippeton" sounds kind of like "tippy-toe," which is funny because Mr. Tippeton is a dwarf. ("Mr. Tippeton, if you please," he insists.) Together they're a team, not just a European vaudeville act but also the last two survivors of a traveling circus whose other members have been murdered by a pseudo-Nazi regime. They hang around in a colorful but forsaken circus tent, trying to polish their routines in case an audience decides to show up. Sporadic explosions and gunfire rock the tent. One of their routines is: "How goes it, Mr. Tippeton?" "Well now, it's shit, Mr. Schpill."
They're interrupted now and then by Officer Cop, a fascist functionary with a flashlight, greatcoat, and pistol. Gypsies and other circus members have already been exterminated, and Officer Cop warns that a decree might arrive at any time for dwarves or even clowns. Tippeton and Schpill live in fear. But Officer Cop also mentions that a single boy from a family of condemned bear trainers has escaped, and may return to the tent. When he does, Schpill and Tippeton play games to keep him from Officer Cop, but it all ends wretchedly, if not quite tragically.
One problem with the play is that most of the action happens near the end, so the first part is a Godot-like exercise in hapless-comedian futility. Tippeton and Schpill are DiDi and GoGo in clowns' motley. Another problem is that Ségal's heavy allegory hangs on the story like a wet wool coat -- there's no suspense about what he means. But there's also no suspense about the clowns' impending doom; all the danger is stated rather than felt; chemistry between Tippeton and Schpill during their nervous nonsense routines is lacking. They sound bored instead of nervous, and no one in the audience laughs. In fact, the seats on the night I went were so empty that you really did have the sense of sitting in an abandoned circus.
Jeff Raz tries to spark life into the show by playing Mr. Schpill with force and professionalism: His alter ego is Razz the Clown (from the New Pickle Circus), so he knows how to juggle knives and swing on a trapeze and act for long periods with a red nose on his face. But his energy isn't matched in the routines by Niki Botelho-Pabros, the 3-foot-6-inch woman who plays Mr. Tippeton. As often as not she seems to line-read, though sometimes she gets into a playful mood and things go better. John Robb plays Officer Cop with more skull-grinning gallows humor than evil, but since the show has no other source of darkness you wish Robb could reach deeper for the reserves of menace he carries around. Beyond all this, though, there's a pall over the whole stage that none of the players can break. It's a pall of unmined talent.
Responsibility for that pall needs to be laid at the feet of Lee Sankowich, who has directed with the idea that listless futility should be played listlessly. Other critics have said the script is a failure, and it may be true that Schpill is just the pale companion to Puppetmaster; Ségal may have poured all his feelings of doom into the other play. Or maybe Sara O'Connor's translation just lacks energy (she slips in an easy and diluting reference to the Republicans' Contract With America). But the whole point of the script is to suggest inexpressible depths of existential shit below the carnival surface, and realizing those suggestions onstage is the director's job. Sankowich's production -- like so many other shows in our wealthy and easygoing Bay Area -- deals in Darkness Lite.
The rest of the show is perfect: Steven Coleman has built a grandly melancholy circus set, draped in sad dun colors; Laura Hazlitt's clown-rag costumes are florid and funny. The Marin Theater Company has thrown everything at this show except a sense of risk. "It's not a question of delivery," says Mr. Tippeton, at one point in their endless drilling routines.
"Of course it is," replies Mr. Schpill.
Of course it is.