Charlie Chaplin was one of the most beloved of movie stars. His silent film character, the Tramp, was an Everyman whose comic escapades were always tinged with near-tragedy.
In 1949, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and screenwriter James Agee, an ardent Chaplin fan, sent him a screenplay about imminent nuclear disaster, suggesting the Tramp would be perfect as a lone survivor in a post-apocalypse world. Chaplin rejected it because he felt audiences would no longer accept a silent film.
When actor, playwright and Chaplin fan Rob Jansen came across Agee’s screenplay, he immediately envisioned a theater piece. The result is Jansen’s one-man show, “The Tramp’s New World,” currently at Manbites Dog Theater.
His ambitious 75-minute one-act layers together several elements, from staging parts of Agee’s screenplay and presenting commentary from it, to demonstrating Chaplin’s comic techniques and projecting film sequences that are riffs on Chaplin’s movies.
Jansen is an engaging actor, ably imitating the Tramp’s humorous innocence, while also offering dramatic weight when voicing Agee and other characters. Joseph Megel’s direction puts Jansen all over the theater, including within and behind the audience, enhanced by Joseph Amodei’s eerie, ominous sound design and Andrew Parks’ stark, chilly lighting.
One of Jansen’s stated purposes is showing how relevant Agee’s script still is concerning nuclear devastation. The Tramp’s attempts to collect rainwater, his labors in dragging his meager possessions along on a bed frame, and his horror encountering human remains is gripping. Jansen also wants to rekindle audiences’ delight in Chaplin’s unique character, something that easily comes across in Jansen’s various antics.
But the piece is difficult to follow because Jansen merges Chaplin and Agee, repeatedly switching from narration to commentary to silent action, as well as from dire seriousness to lighthearted silliness, all within a non-linear time frame. Understandably, Jansen didn’t want to merely stage the screenplay, but the show’s effectiveness is diluted whenever he describes actions as he carries them out. The impact is also lessened by Jansen’s bringing some audience members on stage as participants in the story. Thursday’s audience clearly enjoyed these diversions but they seemed out of place in an otherwise darker world.
The piece has much inherent interest but could benefit from some clarification and focus. As it is, one can enjoy Jansen’s acting talents and a variety of individual segments.
“The Tramp’s New World”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, and Dec. 10-12, 16-19; 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13
Tickets: $12-$20 (seniors/military $2 off; students $5-$10)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org