Starting off the 2018-2019 season at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne is My Dead Clown, an original play written by David Rousculp, a licensed funeral director from New Haven. The story follows Bill, a funeral director whose most recent project is preparing the body of Dingy the Clown. However, Bill’s reputation is in jeopardy because he’s shown a decline in job performance since the passing of someone close to him. Once he inadvertently brings the clown back to life, his life becomes even more complex.
This premise offers a multitude of options for audiences to explore their own lives, which is what quality theater should do. Of all the people in the world, funeral directors should be among the most seasoned individuals who have a firm grasp of the effects of our eventual death. However, Rousculp’s script is evidence that even those who would presumably be the most accepting of our ultimate fate are susceptible to death’s ramifications on the soul.
Director and Stage Designer Rae Surface succeeds in creating the multi-level environment this play demands. Surface’s chosen details found in Bill’s apartment exhibit the depth of character required to portray a troubled protagonist. Throughout the two-hour performance, this large cast offers a story of how one’s faith can be restored from the most unexpected and unlikely sources.
Duke Roth performs as the overworked and increasingly cynical Bill, the protagonist who is rapidly drowning in work and sorrow. Roth exhibits a strong handling of balancing the stressors of Bill’s professional responsibilities and a longing for his past while dealing with the consequences of the clown’s arrival–and unintentional re-spawning–in his workspace.
Dingy the Clown is played by Reuben Albaugh. Albaugh’s energy and cheeriness are suitable for any successful clown. Additionally, Albaugh succeeds throughout the play with his undying (ha!) desire to bring laughter to replace sadness and smiles to erase frowns.
Among the other “living” characters are Chuck, BIll’s boss; Nancy, his assistant; and Eric, his brother. Tom Corron’s humorous role as Chuck serves as the embodiment of Bill’s profession demands. Jennifer Netting’s performance as Nancy shines with an exuberant portrayal of youthful spirit, innocence, and loyalty. Eric, Bill’s younger sibling who has yet to find any firm path in his own life, is played by Nathan Driscoll. Driscoll’s comical presence counters Bill’s apparent stress while simultaneously portraying how inspiration can come from unexpected places and events.
This play, perhaps understandably, also features a few “deceased” characters. Leonard, played by acting and theater veteran Scott K. Strode, humorously excels as a potential aspect of Bill’s consciousness. Deborah Kerr’s small but impressive performance as Mrs. Sticklebush is suggestive of Bill’s devotion to his responsibilities as a funeral director. Jennifer Poiry Prough excels as Bill’s deceased wife Mary, and, peppered throughout the performance, appears in flashbacks where she exposes those gorgeous moments that offer and explain the depth of despair Bill is experiencing in the painful time since her sudden departure.
Rousculp’s rather unpredictable script features many pleasant surprises, many of which are found in the roles of characters who rarely escape their longstanding stereotypes and stifled reputations. Among the remaining secondary characters are strong performances by real-life married couple Robyn and Rod Pasko. Robyn, who is performing in Fort Wayne for the first time after establishing herself on stage and screen in Chicago, turns in an animated and vivid performance as Lucy, a.k.a. The Devil. Rod Pasko offers an unanticipated yet charming down-to-earth version of Death.
Jeanette Walsh’s costume design is poignant and effective, especially in the gimmicks and shenanigans of the title character. Theater Manager Thom Hofrichter’s production and lighting succeed in creating the obvious balance of humor and despair when grouping a boisterous clown, a funeral home, and hell on a single stage.
Bill’s anguish is a direct result of a past tragedy. However, that tragedy has impacted Bill’s faith and perception of humanity’s significance. During the few glimpses from the past with his spouse, we see a jovial couple who epitomize the human desire for love and devotion. Once that was stripped away, Bill became the universal version of humanity who is forced to question that faith. From the moment the first corpse rises up and interacts with the protagonist, any audience member who sees My Dead Clown during its first-ever run will recognize that he or she is in for an amusing and introspective experience.