Kieran Campion, Angela Gots,and Mark Johannes in World of Mirth(Photo:  Carol Rosegg)
Kieran Campion, Angela Gots,
and Mark Johannes in World of Mirth
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
You'll be hard-pressed to find a bleaker play this season than Murphy Guyer's ironically titled World of Mirth. The play is set on a carnival midway, and its characters spend their time conning each other and themselves. They do not, however, con the audience; once World of Mirth starts spinning, we can readily guess the ultimate outcome. Granted, there are some surprises along the way, but there is otherwise a relentless rush toward a dark, unyielding finale.

You have to hand it to Guyer for having the courage to write such an uncompromising piece. On the other hand, the play's bitter view of humanity is so acidic that the producers should provide a generous supply of Rolaids with every ticket they tear. The one absolutely uplifting element of the production at Theatre 4 is the acting: The entire cast is superb as they present us with the calamitous events that take place during one night and the following morning at Kaspar Kelly's World of Mirth.

As the play begins, it's raining, as it has been doing for a long time upon this Sodom and Gomorrah of midway attractions. If there is a flood coming, it certainly isn't a flood of customers; the rain has all but destroyed business. On top of all this, a member of the troupe--a "freak" on the midway--has recently committed suicide; fired and with no place to go, he drowned himself in the clown dunk cage. From that very same cage (with the water pointedly unchanged), the clown Sweeney (Mark Johannes) vocally attacks everyone on the midway. When a ball is thrown and hits its target, Sweeney will drop from his perch into the murky water below; but rarely does anyone bother to take a shot, despite the fact that Sweeney's alcohol-fueled rages are unsparing. He sits in his cage, protected from those he insults by iron bars but also trapped within.

In fact, all of the play's characters are trapped in one way or another. The aging cooch dancer Buffy Starr, a.k.a. "The Wild Woman of Borneo" (Deirdre O'Connell), knows that she has no future on the midway, yet she can't leave Kaspar Kelly (Victor Slezak). She loves him, but she has about as much chance of landing him as she has of actually proving she's from Borneo; Kelly is a ruthless, egocentric, show-business creature who seems to believe his own hyperbole.

Also on hand are the drug addict Emmett (George Bartenieff), who will do anything to continue getting his "medicine," including biting off the heads of chickens in an after-hours geek act. This is particularly gruesome work because Emmett can't find his dentures and therefore has to gum the chickens' heads off. Patch (Jack Willis), the midway's manager, might be a child molester; Augie (Kieran Campion) has a moral blind side; and there's a mute girl (Angela Gots) whose eyes speak volumes about her need to run away.

The "carnie" world is presented as a close community with the attitude of "us versus them." None of the characters is more tightly wound--or wounded--than Sweeney. As vicious as he is, this clown is the only one who actually tries to help his fellow troupers. Johannes so delicately modulates the character's emotions that Sweeney's journey is what makes this freakish piece of theater worth watching.

Dona D. Vaughn directs World of Mirth with an energy that belies the lack of action on the part of the play's mordant characters. The set design, by Michael Brown, captures the sense of a colorful world gone dingy and sour, while Tracy Christensen's costumes and James Vermeulen's muted lighting likewise reflect the tattered lives of the carnies.