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Clive and Well 

A horror writer's play becomes a sensory feast at Tri-C West, of all places.

Crazy for Crazyface: The young cast's focus - on characterizations is outstanding.
  • Crazy for Crazyface: The young cast's focus on characterizations is outstanding.

You just never know where you're going to find a rare evening of thrilling, surprising, and oddly uplifting theater. For instance, you might not think it would happen at the western campus of Cuyahoga Community College, which is composed, at least in part, of a group of forlorn buildings marooned in a circular sea of parking lots in Parma. But that's where Clive Barker's involving, commedia dell'arte-inspired play Crazyface is being given an astonishingly sharp and witty production under the masterful direction of Robert Ellis.

It all begins with a clown-mime (perhaps the most frightening compound word in our language) warming up the audience with bits of tepid frivolity. Fortunately, the gag reflex soon passes, as the clown, played with nimble style by Joshua Eaton, presents the scrolled titles for each of the 16 scenes. It soon becomes clear that horror-genre writer Barker is, in the immortal words of Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction, "gonna get medieval on your ass," with his multifaceted tale of Tyl Eulenspiegel, a fabled country bumpkin from the 14th century, who used his native cunning to outfox all manner of authority figures. Eschewing Marsellus's favorite tools (pliers and a blowtorch), Barker constructs his tale out of the vulgar, farcical, and lyrical elements that frequently cohabited in those story lines of yore. Indeed, many such legends were not much more than poop and fart jokes wrapped around a clever protagonist. But this Tyl, who's also called Crazyface, is more a fortune-blessed idiot than a schemer.

Tyl belongs to a family made up of his mother, his brother, and three stepsisters, including the aggressive, upwardly mobile Annie (feisty Tarah Reim). Eventually shunned by his relatives because of his slowness, Tyl comes to possess a box that holds a commodity so precious that many governments are willing to go to war over it. Box in hand, he then traverses the mean and brutish Low Countries, pursued by a gaggle of "Old Europe" mercenaries, who are intent on relieving Tyl of his treasure. But that's just the start of his troubles, since he's also beset by an irritating and woefully unhelpful angel (Allen Seeley, who projects the offhand ease of a young Kevin Bacon); the vile Mengo (a mesmerizingly malevolent Chris Boros), who's out to steal Tyl's box at any cost; and Tyl's brother, Lenny (splendid Arthur Grothe in a Buckwheat-from-Hell hairstyle), who's been lashed to a torture wheel and gone bonkers. Along the way, Tyl encounters an Icarus-like character, who strapped on a pair of do-it-yourself wings and proceeded to fall from a church spire. "The ground wanted me more than the sky did," he explains pathetically, establishing the philosophical core of Barker's work -- which, although borrowing impulses from Frodo, Don Quixote, and Candide, manages to exert its own hold on the concept of a grand and glorious quest waged against monumental odds.

Barker is best known for his creepy films (Candyman, Hellraiser), and his script predictably dabbles in the macabre. But there are many more moments of burlesque comedy, satire, and tender reflection. There's a steed whose front half argues with its hindquarters until both land in a heap -- proving, one must suppose, that a horse divided against itself cannot stand. At another time, one of the stepsisters sensuously coos to a government official in charge of dealing out punishments, "You'll find I'm more responsive after a public execution." Even the contents of the mysterious box turn out to be a funny reversal on what you think will be a WMD. Through it all and right to the end, Crazyface eludes his foes and innocently seeks redemption by trying to catch a glimpse of a better life. "Am I crazy?" he finally asks, but we know the answer.

The pleasures of Barker's writing are richly enhanced by a Tri-C production that is incessantly imaginative. Scenic designer Randall A. Enlow's simple yet remarkably effective sets capture the middle-ages mood. The superb costume and makeup designs, by Dana Romeo and Thomas Cullinan, respectively, are terrifying or jocular as required. And while there are some flat line readings and atrocious foreign accents (even by burlesque standards), the young cast's focus on detailed characterizations -- even down to the lowliest beggars and townspeople -- is outstanding. In addition to the above-mentioned players, standouts in the large company include Mark Mazzocco, who is comical in his three roles, and Benjamin Stewart, who plays Crazyface as a straightforward though entirely sympathetic simpleton, providing the production a much-needed stable center.

Ultimate props, however, go to director Ellis, for even having the nerve to tackle such a demanding show. There are many more ways for a production like this to fail than succeed, yet Ellis insists on taking one high-wire risk after another -- and pulling them off. Crazyface is a magical, sensory delight.

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