Beak Performance: Red Noses wigs out over religion

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British playwright Peter Barnes was never one for nuance. His best known plays—1968’s The Ruling Class and 1985’s Red Noses—couch broad swipes at authority within a kind of caustic vaudevillian theatricality. Though his satire could be sharp, he wasn’t much interested in wielding it with surgeon-like precision, especially when he could wring bigger laughs out of hacking away at his victims like a dramaturgical Jason Voorhees. So when, in the shrill opening minutes of Washington Shakespeare Company’s staging of Red Noses, it becomes evident that the actors aren’t really holding anything back, you think: That seems about right. But as this long, strident, needlessly repetitive evening proceeds to fly so far and so forcefully off the rails as to attain escape velocity, you start wishing that someone, anyone, involved in the production would hold something, anything, back. Directors Jay Hardee and John Geoffrion seem to have admonished the large cast to go big or go home, and nobody went home. The wildly uneven performances, including several that never quite manage to rise above the level of mugging, simply exacerbate the air of self-regard and self-indulgence that hangs over Barnes’ script. And the copious pedantry of the script—essentially a sustained jeremiad against religious hypocrisy, cowardice, and greed—requires gentler handling than the full-throttle treatment it gets here. Only a few actors manage to find a quiet moment to separate themselves from the tumult and create characters we actually believe and recognize. As Father Flote, the 14th-century priest who scours the plague-ravaged countryside to recruit a troupe of holy clowns, John C. Bailey is unshowy and assured. Heather Haney brings a similarly grounded, three-dimensional presence to her lusty ex-nun, and Geoffrion turns in a coolly sardonic performance as a bored aristocrat. Jennifer Tardiff’s costume work is notably clever; she outfits Barnes’ clergymen, who are terrified of catching the plague, in gas masks and bright yellow dish-washing gloves. But at just shy of three hours long, Red Noses overstays its welcome and sends you out on a particularly sour note: For the curtain call, the cast saunters out from backstage in time to music, and slowly—nay, lethargically—makes its way to the exits. It takes maybe a minute, but it feels like forever, and it’s neatly emblematic of the maddening level of self-satisfaction on display all evening long.