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The Richest Dead Man Alive! 

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Theater Grottesco

at Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Physical theater at its least mental, Theater Grottesco's The Richest Dead Man Alive! uses imagination like a weapon, turning actors into crazed and reckless marionettes. Presented in a Chicago premiere by Wisdom Bridge Theatre (and replacing the canceled Kabuki Richard III), this Detroit import imposes a frenzied commedia style on a twisted parable of greed.

The implausible plot, which was developed by the ensemble, is a pretext for the company's initially innocent but finally ugly buffoonery. William Walden (David Salowich), a dweebish asthma sufferer and bird fancier, is injured by Dan (Ken Colburn), a clumsy refrigerator deliverer, then accidentally buried alive. After he's rescued, he decides to fake his death to collect on his life-insurance policy. But this time he fakes too well.

With William properly buried, his crudely amoral wife Marjorie (Elizabeth Wiseman) and a venal doctor friend named George (coartistic director John Flax) concoct a crackbrained scheme to slaughter the homeless and collect on their policies. Right. By the play's end, dummy bodies are being piled up in a frenzy that vaguely recalls My Lai, Jonestown, and Baghdad. For Elizabeth and George, the mindless slaughter has become reward enough. For us, it's numbing.

The actors attempt to fuse the anarchic ingenuity of the Marx Brothers, Mummenschanz, and Dario Fo with the athleticism of neo-vaudeville and the pseudonaivete of Pee-wee Herman. The visual wit won't move you, but it could impress you. The actors go through character changes so quickly that they suddenly appear wearing costumes that are still on the hangers. Props bounce or slide across the stage as if enchanted, while the actors, working for the opposite effect, at times don half masks that carry a cadaverlike coldness. Every reaction is grotesquely outsized.

The four players, with their cutout props and burlesque costumes, readily lurch into goofball cartoons. Physical gags spoof familiar shticks: instead of the old joke of one actor standing behind another to provide alternate arms, the Grottescos combine one arm from each actor to create a dazzling schizophrenic picture.

This play also teems with weirdly haunting mime pictures: William squirming in his coffin and wheezing into his inhalator, a slow-motion waltz as the husband and wife are reunited after his first burial, Elizabeth and George fleeced of their ill-gotten gains during a tropical vacation from hell.

The opening-night audience found all this remarkably unfunny, and many took off at intermission. They simply had nothing to care about. Grottescos' hybrid makes a treacherous comedy--as it proceeds it dries up what little laughter it gets, until finally it turns so sinister that we wonder if the joke's on us. It's not at all clear, for instance, that they find the killing of the homeless repellent.

Little here seems grounded in more than caricature. The running jokes don't build from any hard take on human excesses; we're just inundated with flashy technique whose speed seems intended to distract us from its inanity. Neither dark enough to scare us nor scathing enough to root itself in protest, The Richest Dead Man Alive! just plays its games until it's abruptly over.

Amid the grotesqueries is the ruthless risk taking behind the crude-as-puppets performances. A master of mime, Salowich fixes the sinisterly sweet William in a constant state of astonishment. Wiseman's Marjorie, sporting menacing breasts, is histrionic and predictable, mugging up a hurricane before and after each screeched line.

As the remorseful delivery man, Colburn almost manages a third dimension. Flax's doctor tries to tie things together with a glib Groucho-like stream of silliness that's mostly irrelevant. Like so much of this troupe's self-defeating cleverness, his confidences don't invite us in.


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