Review

'Lunatics and Actors' asks: Is there a difference?

Who is more capable of expressing authentic emotion: a trained actor or a lunatic? Some might argue it’s a trick question because there’s no difference between the two. And though there may be ample evidence to support that position, playwright David Bridel and Four Clowns theater company explore a more sinister hypothesis in “Lunatics & Actors” at the downtown Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.

Developed in collaboration with Bridel, the recently appointed dean of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, this latest production is an adventurous — and distinctly creepy — departure from Four Clowns’ stylistic signature. For one thing, the piece doesn’t entail clowning per se, although its focus on the depiction of emotional states ingeniously leverages the troupe’s highly physical performance skills.

The company’s name notwithstanding, "Lunatics and Actors" has five principal performers. Kevin Klein, Tyler Bremer, Andrew Eldredge and Alexis Jones appear as test subjects under the control of the 19th century Parisian neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne (Thaddeus Shafer), who pioneered the use of electrical stimulation to trigger targeted emotional reflexes.

“I can make anyone feel anything!” boasts Duchenne, serving as our theatrical ringmaster in a surreal scenario drawn from the doctor’s famous experiments. To demonstrate his point, he applies electrodes (from designer Fred Kinney’s steampunk re-creation of Duchenne’s electroshock apparatus) to the heads of his asylum patients. He compares and contrasts their grotesquely intense displays of specific emotions on command with the craft-based efforts of an actor he recruits from audience volunteers, in a “feel-off” to determine whose renditions are the most authentic.

What begins as an amusing quasi-scientific inquiry skirts dangerously close to acting class exercises in the early going, albeit in the service of an overarching theme about the tension between feeling and artifice.

Under Jeremy Aluma’s finely tuned direction, however, the play soon darkens and deepens as the performers launch into a meta-theatrical deconstruction of “Hamlet” — that archetypal showcase for emotive thespianship. Neither the doctor nor his test subjects can lay definitive claim to emotional authenticity, let alone sanity, as we’re left to ponder whether our feelings truly originate in ourselves or in manipulation by others.

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“Lunatics & Actors,” Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W. 1st St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through May 28. Also 8 p.m. Thursday, May 19 and 26. $12-$15. (562) 508-1788 or www.fourclowns.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

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