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Editorial Review

Clive Barker's 'Crazyface': Deranged for Sure

By Celia Wren
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, May 28, 2009

You can't blame horror novelist Clive Barker for forsaking his early roots in the theater. To judge by his play "Crazyface" -- now receiving its Washington premiere from the ever-intrepid Constellation Theatre Company -- his swerve onto a fiction-film/visual-arts track was a prudent move.

A 2 1/2 -hour lurid mishmash, "Crazyface" suggests a misconceived collaboration between the Monty Python troupe and Hieronymus Bosch. Even the Constellation production's terrific design, and well-synced, lickety-split direction by Allison Arkell Stockman, can't redeem its penny-dreadful goofiness.

Now jocular, now creepy, now simply confusing, "Crazyface" chronicles necromancy; Spanish Inquisition tortures; rampaging armies; banditry; a talking horse; out-of-wedlock pregnancy among pig farmers; a castration (offstage, thank goodness); and, quite seriously, death by chocolate.

The tale's hero is a medieval simpleton nicknamed Crazyface (Ashley Ivey plays the character, who is based on Tyl Eulenspiegel, the legendary jokester who inspired Richard Strauss's 1895 tone poem). After Crazyface's conversations with an Angel (Joe Brack) make him a social outcast, he stumbles on an international, and possibly mystical, conspiracy that involves a fiendish cleric named Mengo (Lisa Lias). Other intriguers include foppish warriors who -- as colorfully costumed by Yvette M. Ryan -- would appear to be the Three Musketeers, although the playbill reveals them to be merely European spies.

If the tale is hard to swallow, Stockman's version at least looks and sounds nifty. Tom Teasley's original score, which he performs onstage, is a fever dream of spooky theatricality, its exotic warbling, whirring, percussive sounds ratcheting up the story's suspense. The curving metallic bars of A.J. Guban's spare, sculptural set evoke forests and prisons, while echoing the Angel's spiky wings. The lighting -- with its looming shadows, flame-colored torture-chamber flickerings and other eerie effects -- is also Guban's. Costumier Ryan has modeled her peasant caps and tunics on paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and she supplies wonderfully sinister carnival robes and masks for Mengo's servants (Katie Atkinson, Katy Carkuff, Misty Demory, Amy Quiggins).

As for the acting: Many of the performers, who shoulder multiple roles, have more gusto than stage presence. But Brack is splendid as the Angel, with green-and-purple hair and expressions that fuse mellow folksiness with psychosis. The Dumas-flavored spies (Keith Irby, Jonathon Church, John Tweel and Manolo Santalla) are delightfully cartoonish. As the title character, Ivey is monotonously bumbling, but Quiggins brings scrappy panache to Annie, Crazyface's daring sister-in-law.

Impressively, Stockman keeps these figures -- and others -- whizzing around like so many steeds in a spectral carousel. Here's a witch flailing her sleeves in a diabolic dance. There's a clown-faced killer climbing out of a dungeon. There's a mysterious Icarus falling through a strobe light. The phantasmagoric vision is truly arresting: Would that it came in wordless 15-minute increments. As it is, "Crazyface" seems best suited to obsessive Clive Barker fans.

Crazyface, by Clive Barker. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; properties design, Fran Nelson; fight choreography, Jonathon Church; choreography, Jennifer Crooks. With Joseph Thornhill.