Published in an edition of 1,000 copies by Massachusetts’ Penmaen Press in 1979, Robert Coover’s odd 36-page short story “Charlie in the House of Rue” reads like a Little-Tramp-meets-Grand-Guignol scenario for a silent movie Charlie Chaplin never made. Coover calls it an “unfilmed black-and-white movie” and the American Repertory Theater admits that bringing it to the stage (rather than the screen) presented enormous challenges. That this adaptation of Coover’s antic surreal tale fails, then, is not at all surprising. The technically halfhearted staging indeed never captures the story’s disturbing elements of cruelty and impending doom.
The production attempts to combine still and moving projections with live action, and both suffer. Most of the black-and-white projections are thrown onto a front scrim. Peering through the blur of mostly meaningless images to watch actors making unconvincing attempts at silent-movie acting grows increasingly irritating, and the production’s 77 minutes seemed all but endless.
Catchwords such as deconstruction, postmodern and multimedia magic have been attached to the production to no avail. The results are bland and earthbound, and, as is true of Coover’s original, one questions the point of the exercise. If it’s to aver that much comedy, particularly slapstick, is firmly rooted in anti-social cruelty, we already know that (seen any Tom and Jerry cartoons lately?).
There’s also a major problem right at the heart of A.R.T.’s production: Thomas Derrah’s Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp. He doesn’t come near to suggesting the genius of Chaplin or even looking like his most famous character.
In his story, Coover presents Charlie in a gloomy mansion going through a series of ever-more alarming and uncontrollable events. He careens from room to room, for the most part being ignored by the characters he meets: a suicidal romantic heroine, an obese bald man (who urinates copiously at one point), a sexy maid (who in the book flashes her bare buttocks at Charlie), a drunken old man whose eyes eventually pop out (during which there seems to be a filmed reference to the notorious eyeball-cutting scene in the 1928 Bunuel-Dali film “Un Chien Andalou”) and a slapstick policeman fishing in the bathroom.
Poor old Charlie has a sorry time of it, ending by clinging to the suspended dead body of the heroine. In an ultimate misstep, he speaks the final words of Coover’s story: “What kind of place is this? Who took the light away? And why is everybody laughing?” But no one is laughing and nothing onstage has been remotely convincing.
Music is heard throughout, primarily that of composer Bill Frissell, which does give the proceedings a jazzy, compulsive beat. Snippets of other music, from Bach to silent-movie gems, are also used, along with sound effects. But the more elements that are combined, the less effective the production becomes. Clearly, this sorry “Charlie” should have been left on the page rather than exposed to the cruel, unforgiving gaze of the stage.