There's really nothing cheerful about Leonid Andreyev's He Who Gets Slapped, but the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama production is so much fun to watch and listen to. Director Tony McKay (associate professor of acting) blends the sordid with spectacle in this 1915 Russian tragedy set in a "threadbare circus," a perfect arena for the unusual skills fostered in CMU dramats.
So we have acrobatics and feats of dexterity to fill in between the scenes of tangled love -- this isn't a triangle, but something non-Euclidean -- and people trying hard not to be who they are. At the center is He of the title, a man escaping from "out there" to hide in the circus. He becomes a clown whose shtick is to speechify like the bosses of the outside world, then be shut up with slaps from the other clowns, off-stage as far as our audience is concerned. All circus antics are suggested by silhouettes and sounds. We're taken behind the curtain, to their "real" lives, such as they are.
The 20-member cast is outstanding, even though most are the wrong age. In the title role, Arya Shahi looks the part of the beaten-down hero, yet sounds like a magical story-teller, and agilely carries the burdens of his mystery man. Also notable are Catherine Urbanek as a dominatrix/lion-tamer; Kailie Torres as the fluffy proto-Marilyn Monroe blonde bombshell; Alex Falberg as her oily aristocratic father; Evan T. Barron as her grotesque aristocratic suitor; Matt Nuernberger as the paternal circus manager and ringmaster; and many clowns, especially Amanda Thorp and Alexander Rice.
More literally spectacular are the effects of the artistic/production team: So Hyun Chung, scene design; Kimberly Lorentz, costumes; Norman Beck, sound; Joseph Israel, lighting; Corey Wachala, composer for the clown entr'actes; Kendra Chapman, dramaturg; voice/text coach, Janet Madelle Feindel; and Calvin Legassie, stage manager.
The dialogue, translated into English in 1921 by New York-based psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg (talk about your psychological insights), is witty, at times poetic, yet tries to both hide and reveal character. Some mysteries are cleared up, others deepened. The 95-year-old message that the nameless average guy is he who gets slapped is still relevant. Have fun.
He Who Gets Slapped continues through Sat., Oct. 9. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. 412-268-2407 or www.cmu.edu/cfa/drama/