Everybody loves Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, who combined the wisdom of age with that of youth in a series of silent films. It is a little bit harder to love Rob Jansen’s version of The Tramp, in the one-man performance he created from James Agee’s mostly unknown draft of a screenplay. Yes, James Agee. In the early years of the nuclear era, Agee thought Chaplin should revive The Tramp and have him warn the world about the hideous dangers of The Bomb and the madness of Mutual Assured Destruction. Chaplin thought, apparently, that The Tramp wasn’t up to the job in the fast loud post-Modern Times world. So Agee’s screenplay, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world, languished until theater artist Jansen decided to convert it to a stage play.
The Tramp’s New World is directed at Manbites Dog by Joseph Megel, who is well known for his exacting sensitivity, and Megel’s techniques are evident–but they cannot overcome the shortcomings of the script. Jansen has chosen to combine mime with voiced acting and with what are essentially voice-over descriptions of action that has already occurred or is about to occur, making for a lot of unnecessary repetition and confusing back and forth. The play is only 75 minutes; it would probably be better at 50 minutes. (Cut even more, it would make an interesting short piece before, for instance, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.)
Nonetheless, Jansen gives many minutes of sweet charm as he bumbles around the destroyed world. He eventually finds other survivors, which draws him out of the despair of perfect aloneness after the atomic wind dies down. Determined to find joy amidst the destruction, The Tramp rigs clever devices to help us all see the wonders. He even finds a woman and a new-born baby! It’s mythic, but rather on the clunky side. Having lived my entire life with the fear of The Bomb, it seems to me that the play neither mines the fear nor does it expose it to the blazing light of courage.
What it does do successfully is to remind us of the importance, the critical importance, of one person–each person–sowing hugs and hope along the path through the killing fields.
The show continues at Manbites Dog through Dec. 19, with a special rate for theater artists at the Sunday evening performance on the 13th. For tickets and more info: www.manbitesdogtheater.org or 919.682.3343.