Friday, December 17, 2010

REVIEW: “LOGOMANIACS” @ ACTORS SHAKESPEARE COMPANY

You know how much Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch loves trash? Well, that’s how much I adore language, which I guess makes me a logomaniac, “a person insanely interested in words,” and the title of the terrific—no, “tour de force” would better describe it—production, Paul Fleischman’s Logomaniacs, now receiving its world premiere at the Actors Shakespeare Company in Jersey City.

A multitude of main characters populate this 90-minute gem of a play (actually 26, one for each letter of the alphabet), all of them real and all clearly insane about words. Several of these people you’ll recognize: William Faulkner (author of the longest sentence—1300 words on 5 pages), Georges Perec (writer of crossword puzzles), Robert McCormick (publisher of the Chicago Tribune) and Ludwig Zamenhof (creator of Esperanto), but most of them are obscure, as befits their particular obsession.

Under Colette Rice’s dynamic and tight direction, four actors perform this wild language circus as just that, a circus, complete with a Ring Master, a beautiful girl in a brief costume and net stockings, and two male characters, all of whom do a yeoman’s job in a wide variety of roles ranging over five centuries. The result is a clever spectacle that will have you laughing out loud, make your jaw drop in wonder and provide you with food for thought.

Logomaniacs 2 Timor Kocak (left) is terrific as the Master of Ceremonies, keeping the action moving along at a good clip and acting in some of the sketches himself. His droll facial expressions provide apt commentary on the antics onstage. Colin Ryan and Paul Sugarman quickly morph into a variety of characters, merely by adding or subtracting a piece of clothing, wig or hat, along with a change of voice and posture. And Jessica Myhr hits the ball out of the park playing both female and male characters with a sparkle in her eye.

Logomaniacs 3 Myhr is especially amusing as Ignatius Donnelly, who attempted to prove that Sir Francis Bacon penned Shakespeare’s plays by looking for obscure clues in the texts themselves; her Minnesota accent is hilarious! Ryan blows the roof off the little theater as a man named Chase, who wrote Anguished Languish, fairy tales re-told in nonsense syllables wherein the sounds of the words approximate the correct words (“Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” for Little Red Riding Hood and “groin murder” for grandmother); you’ll never listen to those classic tales in the same way again! (Right, top to bottom: Colin Ryan, Jessica Myhr, Paul Sugarman)

In one of the funniest bits, the actors, led by Colin Ryan, get into rap mode with Geographical Fuge, a piece by a man named Ernst Toch, written for a speaking chorus and made up entirely of place names (Yokohama and Titicaca among them). And finally, there’s Ludwig Zamenhof who, as a teenager in the late 19th century was fed up with war and conflict, came up with the idea for an international language, Esperanto (the hope), which built on existing languages, reordered grammatical rules and ultimately became something of a curiosity instead of a real way to communicate.

There’s so much here to praise in Paul Fleischman’s snappy script, filled as it is with details wacky and wonderful; you just have to see the play to take it all in (besides, I don’t want to give away some of the funniest bits). The production is enhanced mightily by Eva Lachur-Omeljaniuk’s fabulous costumes, Michael Hajek’s host of props, Annette LeSiege’s special effects (projections) and Christopher Weston’s lighting.
Logomaniacs, a play about people “drunk on words,” runs through this weekend, closing on December 19. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 PM and Saturday and Sunday at 3 PM at the New Jersey City University’s West Side Theater, 285 West Side Avenue (just off Route 440 at Culver Avenue) in Jersey City. Whether you love words, theater or both, don’t miss this “intellectual freak show.” It’ll lift your spirits on these gray winter days. I’m still laughing!

Note: The West Side Theater is wheelchair accessible, and large print programs and assisted listening devices are available. Call 201.200.2390 for information and requests.

Photos: Boyle Images