Victor Hugo's 1869 melodrama The Man Who Laughs is best-remembered as a story about a smile. Its hero is Gwynplaine, a young boy condemned to a life in the circus after his face is carved into a gruesome, permanent grin. The character, famously played by Conrad Veidt in a 1928 silent film adaptation, is among the influences for Batman's Joker. It is not a long leap from Veidt, to Nicholson, to Ledger.
Through February 24th, the Stolen Chair Theatre Company presents an adaptation of Hugo's story, performed in the manner of a silent film. Completely without dialogue, it tells its story through creative staging, talented acting, and 102 projected title cards. It is not a parody of the genre; it is not a museum piece. Instead, it is one of the loveliest bits of theater New York has seen this year. This afternoon, Astor Place Riot spoke to director Jon Stancato about the Joker, his actors, and the prosthetic that keeps his laughing man smiling.
I saw this play on Saturday, and I haven't been able to get Dave Droxler, who plays Gwynplaine, out of my mind. You guys got really lucky with him, didn't you?
It's kismet. I can't imagine anybody better able to tackle the specific challenges of the role. He can break your heart and make you crack into laughter in the same second. To mimic Gwynplaine's permanent smile, the actor has to wear a prosthetic device which holds his face in that smile position. Stephanie Cox-Williams, our designer, has created a prosthetic that he can wear for ninety minutes. There's been a lot of talk over the years about how to create the Joker character, the man who laughs, and she's done a very good job creating something wearable.
Dave has basically no use of his mouth in the piece. He's without voice, and all of his expression has to come from his eyes and the movement of his body.
How comfortable is that prosthetic?
I think Dave is a very, very generous soul, in that he tells me it's wearable because he knows I would be kept up nights if he didn't. The first few drafts of it, he would take off the piece, and the smile lines would remain on his face for a few days afterwards. He's such a soldier that he would say no, no, it's okay. But we worked with Stephanie to make sure that wasn't happening as often. The latex scars that run up the sides of his cheek help deflect some of that discomfort. We have a little spray water bottle that he uses to keep himself hydrated between scenes, because he can't close his mouth to drink.
I think he really, really enjoys the challenge that this creative limitation gives him. I think there's something really satisfying in knowing that Conrad Veidt and Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger have all had to deal with this challenge in different ways.
Does Dave have a favorite Joker?
I'm not sure! I'll have to ask him. He posted a picture on Facebook of a figurine of the Jack Nicholson Joker standing behind the Heath Ledger Joker.
My favorite is the Mark Hammill one, from Batman: The Animated Series. But he doesn't have to wear a prosthetic.
In the 1928 Man Who Laughs, it had to be a silent film, because Conrad Veidt couldn't speak at all with his device in. It was an internal denture that kept him from moving his lips at all. Dave at least can comfortably mouth words.
But Veidt could take his out between takes.
Dave's stuck there for ninety minutes.
If your actor can't move his mouth and can't use his voice, how do you help him build an interesting character?
Luckily, we only worked with actors who were very adept at scripting their own bodies. I'm a movement-based director, but not a choreographer, and I can't come in with a vision of how everybody should be moving in this play. We bring in specific bits of the scenario, little plot points that need to be accomplished, and give the actors an opportunity to build the movement sequences themselves. Based on what they've done, we're able to refine it and say, this moment was really clear, this moment wasn't. It becomes an editing process.
We spent a lot of time exploring how to express very simple emotions with the body. We watched a lot of movies together. We read a lot of articles. We learned what was okay and what wasn't within a silent film. You talk about how directors shouldn't give line readings? I've been giving chin readings. There's something about the silent film aesthetic that can only be accessed with a lifted chin. There's something about the way the light and shadow fall on the chin. Every actor in the play got the same note from me again and again: "Chin up, eyes wider! Chin up, eyes wider!"
A big part of any silent movie is the title cards. Did you and the playwright, Kiran Rikhye, have any kind of rule of thumb about when a card was needed and when it wasn't?
She and I never had formal discussions about when an intertitle was necessary and when it wasn't. The script I had to work with was the series of intertitles and the staging written in between. Almost every rehearsal, she'd get a sense of when the intertitles no longer felt necessary, and when we needed another one. She was very careful not to overstep the bounds of what the medium is allowed to do.
I loved when you do close-ups, with the actor downstage, looking at the audience, his face lit in golden light. Those were the moments when I most felt like I was watching a silent movie.
What I love about those moments is, those are moments when we're most directly emulating a film trick. And it should completely fail, because this actor, instead of being forty feet tall, is just sitting there, five to six feet tall, in front of that down light. But they do feel that they are that big.
Well that's great! You've created a bit of magic. Even you don't know why it works.
What I said early on was that I wanted this to be magical, I wanted to create a sense of wonder in the audience with every lights-up. And the team brought that. I've now seen it dozens of times, and the magic never fades.