Review: ‘Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness’ at Shotgun Players (***1/2)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***1/2)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness” plays at The Ashby Stage from December 5th 2013 through January 12th 2014.)

Anthony Neilson‘s side splitting, mind bending sideshow extravaganza is a surprising, intelligent entertainment, bizarre and peculiar, touching and disturbing, disgusting and inspiring and almost ineffably sad.

“Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness” slyly references an eclectic potpouri of literary and cinematic treasures from Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” to Marquez’ “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” to H. P. Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University to Todd Browning’s “Freaks”. You don’t have to be alert to every subtlety of this extraordinary play to have a good time, but the pull of these rich underpinnings adds a great deal of appropriate gravitas to the story telling.

Brian Herndon as Edward Gant in Shotgun Players production of Anthony Neilson's "Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness"
Brian Herndon as Edward Gant in Shotgun Players production of Anthony Neilson’s “Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness.” Photo Credit: Pak Han.

The message seems to be: Given our existential condition, all of our efforts and the stories we live and tell (especially in the theatre!) are amazing feats of loneliness. It is the kind of thematic material that has engaged the greatest of modern playwrights, especially in the theatre of the absurd, and echoes and shadows of Brecht and Stoppard and others are at play in Gant’s bizarre side show of lonely freaks.

Nina Ball’s excellent setting convincingly evokes a corner of a traveling carnival, where showman Gant has set up a flimsy stage and carnival lights. Gant announces that he is going to display for us wondrous “deformities of the heart and mind.”  In other word, he’s going to show us some theatre.

The company begins with the story of “Sonsonetta: The Pimple Faced Girl.” The premise of a girl’s acne treated as high drama is both outrageously funny and  oddly moving, at once trivial and tragic. The bizarre image of Sonsetta popping her zits in the presence of her more beautiful sister (played in a side splittingly funny drag turn by Patrick Kelly Jones) is all at once nauseating, funny and painfully sad. This symphonic emotional texture is beautifully realized in the moment when her suitor, who loves her (for reasons I will not here revea) in spite of her grotesque skin, proudly declares himself with the statement: “Loving you will be my struggle.”

As stories continue to unfold, the complexities and absurdities increase in a marvelously meta manner. The plays become plays within plays within plays: is this all about Edward Gant’s company of actors? the Shogtun actors in real life? the audience? Lines are blurred and what unfolds on stage moves from surreal to more surreal to mondo surreal.

All of this is accomplished by means of charming theatrical craft utilizing close harmonic singing, sketch style comedy (reminiscent of the old Carol Burnett Show), puppets, direct audience address, surprising shifts of set, and more.

Amazing, indeed.

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“Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness” by Anthony Neilson, produced by Shotgun Players. Diretor: Beth Wilmurt. Set: Nina Ball. Costumes: Christine Crook. Lights: Mark D’Angelo. Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez. Properties Design: Kirsten Royston.

Jack Dearlove: Ryan Drummond. Edward Gant: Brian Herndon. Patrick Kelly Jones: Nicholas Ludd. Madame Poulet: Sarah Moser. 

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