This Is Not Funny is a devised comedic theatrical experiment. Which says something, but what exactly? The stage is the floor of the performing-arts space called the Chapel, there's a curtain on a clothesline demarking the playing area and a lone microphone off to stage left, set up on the space's actual stage. It's theater stripped down to its bare elements; the whole of the piece suggests you should focus on the story being told above all else.
But what story is being told? Well, there are apparently three. Beth Van Pelt stands at the microphone and thanks everyone for coming to this poetry open mic, then launches into some self-righteous poems that skew toward the horrible end of the scale. Sarah McKenney and Sara Sapp portray young girls who play with buckets and balloons on the floor. Steven Castelli is a clown (a European-style silent clown, not a nightmare American clown) who floats around the girls. Eventually he wheels out a large box that has Sarah Porter and Reginald Pierre inside, acting as TV newscasters. Every newsbreak they present is a gruesome tragedy, each more horrible than the last.
This set-up is simple, but there's something complex going on here. These three elements intersect through various shared words and a steady march toward a sundering. The poet grows angrier; the girls' relationship fluctuates between genuine friendship and cruelty; the talking heads argue and one-up each other. Only the clown seems stable. Sure, he cuts the girls' balloon strings, but he also plays with them and maintains a cheerful disposition in the face of increasing tensions.
If I'm honest, parts of This Is Not Funny were tedious. The early going is opaque and comes across more like a set of acting exercises than a discreet story. And yet I can't stop thinking about the show -- and that's the hallmark of an interesting production. Director Anna Skidis and the cast collectively wrote the play, and they set these three stories against each for a reason. But no director's notes offer a thematic overview, nor does Skidis provide her own interpretation -- there is only the play itself and what we find in it.
It's a daring choice, and I think it works because it forces us in the audience to engage with this play on our own terms. If you can't do that, you're doomed to see This Is Not Funny as nothing but a failed attempt. But I'd rather see and think about a dozen ambitious failures than sit through a single safe, easy production.
And to be clear, I don't think this is a failed attempt at anything. It is ambitious, and the theater company (which is brand-new, according to its Facebook page) offers very good performances. Beth Van Pelt's poet has an arrogant faith in her own genius; she's a wreck of a person on a personal and social level. Steven Castelli displays a kind-hearted optimism without saying a word. Sarah Porter and Reginald Pierre's fraught relationship grows funnier as their hatred for one another increases. Sarah McKenney and Sara Sapp capture the whiplash emotional switchbacks of young friendships, and their shared enthusiasm for balloons and catching butterflies stands in stark contrast to everything going on around them.
So, will you love it? I don't know. Like life itself, This Is Not Funny gives you exactly as much as you're willing to personally invest in it. That justifies taking a chance on it -- and on yourself.
This Is Not Funny Through August 2 at the Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. Tickets are $15 to $20; click here to purchase.