Strawdog’s ‘Red Noses’ finds the humor in the horror

You can’t cheat death, but you can laugh at it in Strawdog’s ‘Red Noses’

Bright yellow vomit. That’s how you know it’s time to sack it up and head on through to the other side. Nothing left to do but laugh!

It’s the mid 14th century, and the Black Plague is gaining momentum. People are dropping like flies. Life seems hopeless, dark, unfair. But a spirited priest named Flote (John Ferrick) understands the power of laughter in desperate situations, and gathers together a band of misfit comedians, including a bitter nun, a blind comic and a pair of one-legged dancers, to travel Europe staging near-heretic pantomimes designed to make the masses laugh. However, Pope Clement VI (Michael E. Smith, sporting a fly suit and knuckle rings), who initially backs Father Flote’s mission, catches wind of these plays, and, well, isn’t happy. But the power of loyalty and community within Flote’s makeshift troupe overcomes.

Red Noses was a hit for Strawdog last season, gaining critical praise and strong word of mouth. In this enthusiastic remount, which began at Theatre on the Lake and has now moved back into Strawdog’s intimate space, those of us who missed it the first time around (me) can now see what all the fuss was about.

This is a very Chicago play. It showcases a large, eclectic ensemble, and, while written by Peter Barnes, has the air of being born out of improv sessions and collaborative scene exercises. Along with some slapsticky silliness, there’s a mix of emotionally top-heavy scenes where characters contemplate their fates (“Shakespeare pageants,” my theatre companion called them) with a healthy heap of anachronisms, such as the insertion of vaguely topical top 40 songs from the early ’80s (the Reagan era, to be more specific).

Ok, I admit it: I’m getting a little bored by the use of “ironic” ’80s pop tunes in Chicago storefront plays. For me, the joke is over before it’s begun. It’s lazy filler. But the music arrangements and the musicianship — the ensemble accompanies each other — are remarkable here.

Described as a black comedy, the show takes a while to reach the laughs. It’s not until Flote starts assembling his troupe that I started to dig it. But, just as the thing gains comedic steam (with a bright moment from Michael Dailey as the hopelessly blind comic), it’s intermission, and act two takes a disappointingly somber turn. The yellow vomit flows, as does the pathos. Bummer.

The energy of this multi-talented group and the overall concept keeps you engaged in Strawdog’s uniquely dark comedy. It’s a bold piece of work. I just wanted more comedy with my dark.

‘Red Noses’ plays through August 15 at the Strawdog Theatre. More information here >

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