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Silent Thrill

Questfest Mines a Wealth of Human Emotion Without Relying On Words

MIME SUSPECT: Meyyappan impishly flies through the human experience.

By John Barry | Posted 1/23/2008

You can head out to see Mistero Buffo, a captivating work of movement theater, after reading the written version of Dario Fo's masterpiece. Or you can watch it without knowing what the hell is going on. Either way, you'll realize why this crazy Italian got his Nobel Prize without ever coming up with a final draft. Mistero Buffo is a work in progress that hasn't aged since it came first came here in 1986, when the city of Baltimore and Theatre Project hosted Theatre of Nations, an international theater festival.

Buffo is a fiercely funny take on 13th-14th century passion plays, using commedia dell'arte techniques, in which a court jester/buffoon skewers just about everyone he can within the space of about an hour--including Christ, John Paul II, the devil, and whoever else happens to be around. With his penchant for improvised blasphemy, Fo has managed in his long career to get on the bad side of the Roman Catholic Church, fringe fascists, and the Italian and U.S. governments.

He heads down similarly subversive routes in Buffo: Lazarus rises from the dead, innocents get slaughtered, and Mary watches Christ get crucified. In other words, Mel Brooks meets Mel Gibson. Mistero Buffo gives the little guy a chance to get back at the guys on top, and Fo obviously kicked them where it hurt. Given his reputation as a leftist, then, anyone who Googles Fo is going to walk into this production at Theatre Project ready for a barrage of Karl and Groucho Marx, full of wicked digs at sacred cows.

This silent version might take you by surprise; it's not clear exactly what's going on. Without spoken words, this production is less of a debunking of sacred cows and more of an alternately strange, beautiful, slapstick dance in the swamp of self-righteous moral hypocrisy. Ramesh Meyyappan's performance is contorted but unforced; after an hour of splashing around, with Buffo's meandering and indeterminate narratives, Meyyappan really gets at the elastic genius of Fo himself. You may not know all the stories or pick up on all the references to the passion plays. You may not even know why the person next to you is laughing. But just relax.

Meyyappan is a riveting performer who manages to move between the arabesque and the grotesque. His mimetic abilities aren't tightly choreographed, nor does he drive immediate barriers between the dozens of characters he has to portray in Fo's piece. So if you're coming for a plot line, you've come to the wrong place. The subplots will jump out at you: a morally devout worshipper prays for bling, a witness to Christ's water-wine miracle gets drunk.

Meyyappan's jester, in the end, is lampooning your own moral and emotional development. Every time his character does something virtuous, he wonders if there's something he can get out of it. Every time something beautiful comes along, he comes up with the ugliest possible angle on it. After several minutes, the performance is a Silly Putty of the human persona--fascinating to watch, as long as you don't take it too seriously.

It wouldn't be fair to call "Swept Away," the other play of the evening, an opening performance. It does pre-empt Mistero Buffo, but it gets a great deal done in 15 minutes. It isn't entirely unspoken: the character occasionally descends into a Slavic version of grammelot, the sort of theatrical gibberish that Fo used in Buffo. "Swept Away" begins with a staged entrance that introduces us to an overfed, underpaid, and extremely creative floor sweeper whose creative powers allow him to do almost anything with a broom except what his boss wants him to do.

The performer, Iosif Schneiderman, isn't a gymnast. His gifts as a mime creep more subversively into his act, because at first he just looks like a fat, balding Russian playing around with a broom and speaking in a guttural, incomprehensible tongue. By the end, thanks in part to creative direction by Tim Chamberlain, he appears to turn the broom into a living being, and his appendages gradually appear to separate themselves from their points of origin.

Mistero Buffo and "Swept Away" are merely the tip of the QuestFest iceberg. Don't let the "visual" theater genre scare you away. Judging from the two plays I've seen--and there are a number of other ones, playing at Towson University and the Creative Alliance--these performances prod us to discover possibilities that, in our verbally overloaded world, we frequently overlook.

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