Forget about the floppy shoes and red noses that the theatre company's name, Four Clowns, might suggest. Instead, their latest production, "Lunatics & Actors" — directed by Jeremy Aluma and written by David Bridel, newly-appointed dean of USC's School of Dramatic Arts — explores the mysterious experiments of Dr. Duchenne de Boulogne. Dark and hilarious, a night with the doctor is not one that you will soon forget.

As the lights come up at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, French neurologist Dr. Duchenne (Thaddeus Shafer) makes a bold claim: he can make anyone feel anything. To prove his point, a volunteer with theatrical training is chosen from the audience, and asked to "compete" against the subjects of the doctor's experiments to see who can be more emotionally authentic. The doctor's subjects are his three "lunatics"—Pepe (Andrew Eldredge), Bon-Bon (Tyler Bremer), and Fifi (Alexis Jones)—who have been trained by the doctor to respond with various emotions to his electroshock therapy. Through these demonstrations, the audience is treated to unbridled displays of emotion, sword fights, and even a little Shakespeare.

Thaddeus Shafer, commanding and compelling, carries the show as Dr. Duchenne himself. Setting aside the stereotypes of your typical mad scientist, Shafer imbues the doctor with the passion of a man who believes in his work, making him charming rather than sinister. Eldredge, Bremer, and Jones are fascinating to watch as the lunatics, for each of them has their own little quirk, making them distinguishable and memorable. Despite having few lines, the three of them are able to create compelling characters through their gestures, facial expressions, and individual ticks.

Thaddeus Shafer as Dr. Duchenne in Four Clowns’ “Lunatics & Actors.” Photo courtesy of Jeremy Aluma
Thaddeus Shafer as Dr. Duchenne in Four Clowns’ “Lunatics & Actors.” Photo courtesy of Jeremy Aluma

The technical aspects of the show work together seamlessly. Fred Kinney's scenic design is appropriately stark. Covered in white paint, it is bleak and cold, and accented with three white chairs. To add some life, certain moments of discovery are highlighted with flashes of colored light, courtesy of lighting designer Azra King-Abadi. Elena Flores' costumes are cleverly designed to allow the lunatics to switch from patients to performers, and the zaps (Kate Fechtig, Sound Designer) emanating from the doctor's mysterious electric shock machine (designed by Nicole Mercs, Property Master) are chilling.

This show is written for actors, as it gloriously pokes fun at the acting process. It questions actors' methods in achieving emotional authenticity, and exposes the flaws in these methods. Although it does not offer a solution, it does begin a discussion on what it means to be emotionally authentic, and how to harness the myriad of emotions actors are called upon to perform. Dr. Duchenne asks, "What is truth?" And his exploration of the answer will stay with you for a while.

"Lunatics & Actors" is playing at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles April 29-May 28. Tickets are $12-$15, and are available at www.fourclowns.org.

Contact Staff Reporter Julia Stier at juliasti@usc.edu.