Spitting, laughing in the face of death

Photo of a monkIt took a British playwright and satirist named Peter Barnes to find humor in one of the darkest events in all of human history.

Opening Thursday, March 26, the NIU School of Theatre and Dance presents Barnes’ “Red Noses,” a darkly comedic take on the five-year period when the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, decimated the mid-14th century European population by almost one-third.

“Red Noses” tells the tale of a monk of the Medieval church who embarks on a desperate and sacred crusade to serve God’s will and ease man’s suffering in the face of a pandemic which has only false explanations and no escape.

He recruits a band of misfit “red-nosers” to provide a brief moment of happiness, distraction and dignity to the millions of people who face imminent death.

Among this unlikely group of crusaders is a blind juggler, a man who communicates solely by the ringing of bells, a stammering stand-up comic, a pair of one-legged dancers and a lustful nun.

The play is being directed by Alex Gelman, faculty member and director of the school. “Red Noses” is his favorite play for several reasons, but mostly because it presents a Vaudeville-style atmosphere “… with a haunting essence of Charlie Chaplin.”

“Winking at a pain is an incredible thing,” Gelman said. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to find something funny about spitting into the face of Death.”

However, he believes Barnes created a world that not one character could conquer, and not one character is particularly important. “This is not the story of one man’s journey. These characters are a collective,” Gelman said, “like how each individual (tile) is important in a great mosaic.”

Although written in 1978, and first performed in 1985, Gelman believes that the themes Barnes wrote about in “Red Noses” are more relevant for today’s society than ever, with respect to politics, beliefs and an overwhelming volume of information.

Photo of a hand holding three balls to juggle“Barnes wanted art to tell the truth and show the weakness of facts,” he said.

“Red Noses” runs from Thursday, March 26, through Sunday, March 29, and from Thursday, April 9, through Saturday, April 11. Performances will take place at the Huntley Middle School Auditorium, located at 1515 S Fourth St. in DeKalb. Performances will start at 7:30 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays. Sunday and second-Saturday matinee shows will start at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available online or by contacting the NIU School of Theatre and Dance box office at (815) 753-1600 or sotdboxoffice@niu.edu. Ticket prices are $16 for adults, $13 for seniors and $8 for students.

This production of “Red Noses” is not affiliated with the DeKalb Community Unit School District 428.

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