While “Les Miserables” would love nothing more than to hold our attention all the way through Oscar season, yet another Victor Hugo adaptation is stealthily having its moment. Billed as a “live silent film,” the Urban Stages Theater production of “The Man Who Laughs” (located near NYC’s Penn Station) re-creates in painstaking detail the sights, sounds, and feelings of a 1920s filmgoing experience. The actors perform in grayscale makeup, a live pianist sets a lavish mood for each scene, and the story and dialogue are relayed via title cards projected onto a scrim at the front of the house.
The story is an appropriately simple one, although it spans hills and valleys of surprising emotional height and depth. An orphan boy named Gwynplaine is abducted and mutilated by a gang of “comprachicos” and left disfigured, his face twisted into a permanent grin. He becomes part of an ad hoc family of sideshow performers, but despite finding true love in the form of his blind “sister,” Gwynplaine is tragically unable to reconcile the gravity of his soul with his foolish outward appearance.
Hugo’s obscure 1869 novel was successfully adapted into an actual film in 1928 (available in its entirety on YouTube, if you scroll to the end of this article), and the main character provided the early inspiration for Batman arch-nemesis The Joker. However, don’t look for a villain in Dave Droxler’s finely drawn portrayal of Gwynplaine. While the tale is ultimately one of violence and woe, this production — “freely inspired” by the original novel and movie — plumbs deep reservoirs of sympathy for its more vulnerable characters, and even the most wicked among them (a pair of vile nobles played by Rebecca Whitehurst and Raife Baker) are not entirely without feeling. The exaggerated physicality of silent movies provides each of the show’s actors with a rich vein of gold to mine for humor and pathos alike. Everyone in the company turns in a fully three-dimensional “cinematic” performance, and while the temptation must be quite strong, not one of them breaks the illusion by winking at the audience or straying into parody of the art-form.
Nevertheless, the scene is often stolen by the scenery upon which they’re sitting, which tilts, shifts, and vanishes (often mid-scene) to create the illusion that you’re watching from different camera angles. Thank goodness for those title cards, which provide just enough time and darkness to obfuscate most of the effort. The ability to easily flip between different settings — a snowstorm, a Duchess’s boudoir, a dilapidated shanty — is something film audiences have spent nearly a century taking for granted; attempting to re-create that ease in a live show is an ambitious undertaking, and when it works, it’s pure movie magic. (The free bag of freshly popped popcorn didn’t hurt the illusion one bit.)
As tempting as it is to immediately follow applause with a list of requests for other “live silent film” adaptations (several Edgar Allan Poe stories spring to mind), this particular production has been many years in the making, dating back to an original run in 2005. “The Man Who Laughs” will continue at Urban Stages through February 24, with discounted tickets available for those who attend in period costume. If you’d like to encourage a longer run, then look no further than the show’s Indiegogo campaign, where you’ll also find a time-elapsed film of Gwynplaine getting into his ghastly makeup.
What’s that, Anne Hathaway? You had to cut your hair for your art? Look on the bright side, at least you didn’t have hooks pulling your entire face out of shape.