A damsel in distress squeezes pearls out of her pimples. A tattered teddy bear pines for an imaginary tea party. A lover in mourning begs for a lobotomy to forget his loss.
Tragedy is always on the playbill during "Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness." Part freak show, part cabaret and all off-kilter, Anthony Neilson's bizarre Victorian carnival mashes up the absurd, the lowbrow and the piercing for 100 unpredictable minutes. While the highly stylized plot's reach somewhat exceeds its grasp in exploring the existential nature of theater, Beth Wilmurt's astute production keeps the audience equally entertained and unsettled from start to finish.
Impresario Edward Gant (Brian Herndon) and his ragtag band of players welcome us to their 1881 traveling show with promises of the preposterous. Ever the showman, bedecked in top hat and bow tie, Gant regales us with tales from the crypt of the human heart.
There's the emotionally shattered soldier (the versatile Ryan Drummond), who travels the globe in search of the way to dull the pain of his grief before begging for death. He romps through opium dens and Nepalese ice caves in the quest to forget his lost love.
There's also the Italian lady (Sarah Moser), cursed with a face full of acne. Her only solace is that her pimples bear beautiful white pearls of endless price. Of course, there's a grotesque aria delivered concerning the popping of these bulbous objects.
If that makes you a tad squeamish, know that Neilson delves into gruesome territory, some of which involves brain matter and botched abortions. The faint of heart may find themselves looking away here and there, although there's nothing truly graphic onstage, merely the suggestion of grisly affairs. There's also quite a bit of crass humor that may offend the dainty, although many of the insults are so antiquated as to be vague.
In one oddball sequence, the Phantom of the Dry (also Herndon), an apparition who appears to actors who forget their lines, jokes that his mouth is as dry as a certain body part on a suffragette.
When the phantom leaves a hammy actor (a tart Patrick Kelly Jones) in a far-off limbo, he encounters a lost teddy bear (Moser again), a child's long-forgotten plaything. The bear tells him a cutting sob story about being abandoned, and also brutalized, by the boy who once loved him. Then they have tea. And a brawl. Oh, and then the whole show gets called off.
Neilson toys with the rules of theater in several Pirandellian flourishes that keep the audience guessing. While the musical interludes seem a little jarring and many of the gags feel contrived, that shamelessness is also part of the appeal of the show.
From its below-the-belt digs at Catholic priests to its trenchant denunciation of theater criticism ("that rare ability to misinterpret a man's aims and then hound him for not achieving them"), "Gant" delights in mixing up the insightful and the outrageous. Nina Ball's twinkling vaudevillian wonderland of a set adds to the sense of mystery.
Herndon radiates cheekiness as the not-so-suave master of the ceremonies, soldiering on from one tale of woe to another as if he were running from his own good taste.
If the play-within-a-play gambit is never quite successful, and the evening feels a bit too long, it's hard to resist the sheer bravado of this dark carnival of the heart. Not to indulge in spoilers, but Gant's final curtain is a doozy.
'Edward gant's amazing feats of loneliness'
By Anthony Neilson,
presented by Shotgun
Through: Jan. 12
Where: Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 500 Ashby St. Berkeley
Running time: 1 hour,
40 minutes, no intermission