Richardson — What do you get when you mix a stage full of clowns with a 1930's black and white noir detective movie? Clowning Around with Murder!, that's what.
Pegasus Theatre Artistic Director Kurt Kleinmann's 20th play featuring perpetually perplexed Harry Hunsacker, bumbling private detective and wannabe actor, is summoned to a thriving clown college to solve the murder of founding clown Dodo Fripson. Who better than Harry (adorably confused Scott Nixon), a world-class dodo himself, to get to the bottom of the big trunk with a corpse inside?
Kleinmann, playwright and creator of the trademark Living Black and White shows in which makeup, costumes and lighting give the show the feel of a black-and-white movie, celebrates the company's 33rd season with another string of murders for his bumbling detective to solve. Of course, Harry's razor-sharp, paid-by-the-hour assistant Nigel (manly, modest Ben Bryant) is there to actually figure out what happened and gallantly attribute his insightful deductions to his boss.
Their job is to solve the murder before the police get wind of the crime and create the wrong sort of notoriety for the prestigious institution and their distinguished faculty, all going about their business in full clown regalia. As we've come to expect, however, brusque and canny Detective Lt. Foster (feisty Chad Cline) has caught wind of something bloody in the state of laugh-dom, and just may be on the scene already. Hard to tell at first glance.
Director Michael Serrecchia, back for his eighth consecutive Harry romp, creates a fanciful vaudevillian atmosphere at the outset, with all the clowns juggling or landing a playful trick to calliope music outfitted in Michael Robinson's giddy black and white patterned costumes, from a stunning harlequin body suit to a crazy-big plaid jacket and a white satin gown with fur trim for a svelte female faculty member. This evocative, playful scene is worth the trip to the Eisemann, even before the first shot is fired.
Robert Winn's elegant set design features three rings stage front, with a steep chute on the right for clowns who prefer to enter sliding. Scrims reveal upstairs and downstairs offices that light up when the plot requires a secret meeting. The scene with our three stalwart detectives gathered in the upper office looks like a lovely jittery old movie, but in 3-D. It's Harry's yearning for a big-time acting role come to life.
All the clowns have their special shtick, and half the fun is in the hilarious questioning of the witnesses and suspects, as Nigel, Harry and company get down to business. Turns out hapless Harry has a natural gift for clownspeak. Honk, honk! Comes in handy when interrogating a bunch of professional jesters, with their bizarre neuroses and sudden laughing attacks.
The plot thickens and the corpses multiply. Handsome Nigel acknowledges the sighs of the lady clowns with a quick smile and a smoothing of his ultrablonde wig. Harry’s totally taken in by one clown's slick math tricks, to our delight, as Nigel rolls his eyes and Lt. Foster scores another bet over Harry.
These crafty clowns, played by Beth Lipton, Robert Long, Alex Moore, David Noel, Leslie Patrick, Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Sheila Rose, Michael Speck and Robinson wearing one of his own cool costumes, are more than your everyday circus buffoons. Kudos to clown makeup designer Leslie Patrick for the distinctive makeup.
At intermission, the audience is invited to name the killer and the motive for a drawing after the final curtain. The lobby was filled with fans in their black and white ensembles, including several women in bright red dresses, the better to stand out in the photos with the cast after the show. The "Harry show," as one woman told me, is a New Year's tradition for her family.
The appeal of Kleinmann's black-and-white noir is not only in the fun of the whodunit approach, but in the nostalgia evoked by the recreation of a simpler technology and simpler times. When the Lady in Red (Stephanie Felton) steps on the stage at the end to award the winner who solved the crime after Act I, we applaud partly because the sudden contrast because our eyes are shocked into the explosion of the color red.
The Harry cult only grows, as newcomers invite friends to marvel at the magician's trick of reversing our multicolor expectations to achieve the multiplicity of many shades of gray. Still delightful after all these years. Happy New Year to everybody who makes us smile and laugh and clap our hands.