COHORT REPORT: Peeling back the mask

“We like to remember people who go first,” as a character says in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s new production “Lost Laughs,” a show about comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was the first movie actor to rise to stardom, but he’s remembered now, if at all, for the part he played in a young actress named Virginia Rappe’s tragic death.

The play tells the story of Fatty’s rise and fall, moving adeptly between broad, vaudevillian comedy and heartbreaking moments of tragedy. The tropes of silent film are given a nod throughout, to great effect. Particularly striking is the story of Fatty’s first marriage, which is told in a silent routine involving a clothes line.

Much of the action takes place on what looks like a raw film set before the props and backdrops are added. It is eventually pulled back to show first the red curtain of a stage and ultimately, the hotel room where Virginia spent her last night. Once the disheveled room is revealed, it seems to stalk Fatty like a character in its own right, looming behind his attempts to clear his name and move on with his life.
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Kristen Mengelkoch in LOST LAUGHS… Photo by Meghan Moore.
Aaron Muñoz plays Fatty with considerable charm and his lone costar Kristen Mengelkoch is a whirlwind, effortlessly switching between an array of minor characters from Buster Keaton to a fan on the street.

Throughout the play, characters reference the artifice that defines Fatty’s life. The public loves him and gives him the validation he never received as a child–but they don’t love Roscoe. One of the play’s most devastating moments comes when Roscoe is literally stripped, and must stand before us to be judged, without his jovial alter ego to keep him safe.

Mengelkoch gets her own turn to break our hearts in a monologue as Virginia Rappe. And both come together for an ending that is as quiet and beautiful as the opening scene is frantic and funny. I left feeling truly moved by the experience.

–Amy Roeder, Cohort

 

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Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11

www.mrt.org/lostlaughs

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COHORT REPORT: Silence and Reality of Film and Stage

The days of vaudeville into silent films was filled with images of actors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. “Fatty” was a comedian, director and screen writer who earned, and lost, millions during the golden age of jazz and silent films.

The MRT rehearsals for Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle presented an artistic challenge for the crew and actors. There was much involved to bring silent film slapstick into a creative production on the stage. You will see the amazing results by a very talented designer crew, Director Nathan Keepers, playwright Andy Bayiates (born in Lowell) and appreciate the era stunningly performed by playwright and actor Aaron Muñoz, and actor Kristen Mengelkoch.

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Aaron Muñoz and Kristen Mengelkoch in LOST LAUGHS… Photo by Meghan Moore.

 

Slapstick comedy is a fun-filled cascade of stunts and mayhem that require physical endurance. Fatty was portly, which he used as the image for his comedic creativity doing tumbles, jumps, chases with innocent looks and smiles. There are moments of “talking” by background music to reflect the theme and pace of the story. If you know Keystone Kops you know the comedy of Fatty Arbuckle.

Few knew and loved both Roscoe the man and Fatty the actor better than his wife. Yet, it was a wild time so being married was a struggle they lost. Fatty had popularity as a performer and enjoyed the wild lifestyle of the rich and famous. It was the twenties during prohibition, and Fatty and his friends knew how to party. When he held a weekend raucous party in a hotel with large quantities of liquor for his many friends, there was an incident that changed Fatty’s life forever.

You may know, Fatty was accused in the death of a young woman, but not the details of that evening and beyond. The trials depleted his funds then, sadly, he could no longer get anyone to laugh and his career was destroyed. MRT will bring you back to that time when the coverage of the story and public reaction was fierce, and Fatty was seen as a human being with a voice, rather than a silent slapstick on a screen.

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort

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Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11

www.mrt.org/lostlaughs

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Playwright Q&A: Aaron Muñoz

Artistic director Sean Daniels sat down with playwright and performer Aaron Muñoz to talk about his new play Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle.

Can you give us a little bit of history? First of all, who was Fatty Arbuckle? Why does he get his own play?

The reason why he gets his own play is because it’s a really cool story. He was pretty much a rival to Charlie Chaplin in the teens and 1920s. At one point, he was the highest paid movie star; he signed a three-year, three million dollar contract, which by today’s standards would just be insane, as far as money, at that time. He was really beloved by kids and families, and people just loved his character of Fatty Arbuckle, and his comedy. And like Chaplin and like Buster Keaton, he directed, he wrote, he starred, he had his own studio; it was a huge thing! That alone is like, “Wow!”

Imagine Paramount/ Arbuckle studios! Who could imagine Paramount, today, working with one guy?

Totally! That alone is interesting. The other interesting thing is that people are like: “Who?” So, to have someone with all of that clout and all of that creative output, and then a hundred years later, we’re like: “Wait, I don’t even know who this dude is.” And the reason is that there was a scandal; it was the first big Hollywood scandal, and he was charged for murder. It was kind of like if Kevin Hart or Will Ferrell was charged for murder. It was pretty crazy! You know, this really funny dude, who everyone really loves, and is genuinely a pretty cool guy, and gets run up on murder charges. To this day…in his story, nobody really knows what happened. That’s kind of the nature of it. There were two people in the room: one of them died and one of them didn’t.

I’m fascinated with the idea that, in America, we have such a complicated relationship with celebrities. We raise them up; we tear them down; we love nothing more than for child stars to become crack addicts later in life. This was kind of the first time that America did this: it raised somebody up and then tore them down and then felt bad about themselves. And then didn’t know what to do afterwards. Now, we do that all the time, right?

Yea, it’s the news cycle every day.

That’s right, what YouTube star must we crush today, for doing something we don’t agree with. Which I think is fascinating. We have a reality TV show host as a President. So, the question is: How did we get here? How did our relationship with celebrities and raising people up and putting all of our expectations or disappointments on them…where did that start?

I think so much of that is also connected to media. Not just journalistic media, but media as a whole; this was the beginning of film. You know, the first time people went to a theatre and saw a film of the ocean, they ran, because they thought the ocean was going to come and get them! That’s how real it was; that’s how mind blowing it was to see moving pictures on a screen. So, now, to see people up there on a screen and then to see them in real life, it’s the adulation! The kind of hero worship of celebrity and the connection to seeing them on a big screen is directly related to how we relate to celebrities today. I mean, our President, not withstanding other Presidents, have to be good on TV. That’s just a requirement of the job. It’s arguable if FDR would be okay right now because he was in a wheelchair. There is a lot of public perception that goes into being leaders and celebrities.

How long have you been working on this?

In earnest, I applied for a grant almost 10 years ago. Before that, I had read biographies, watched films, and stuff like that, but, then when I applied for the grant, I really started to just dig-in, research wise. So, it’s been about a decade of learning about Roscoe Arbuckle and the time. Then once this really kicked into gear, a little over a year ago, I delved deeper and found a lot more stuff, not only about him but about the people in his life. A lot of the play has some direct quotes but also some things that are pretty much what they said about Roscoe, and this is what they said at the time, about things. It’s really cool to unearth that and to find that, and then to put that into a piece of art.

Who are the other people involved? Your co-star? Your director?

Awesome co-star, Kristen Mengelkoch. We all worked together on a play at Geva Theatre [Center] called The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacarias. It was an awesome experience and Kristen and I remained friends. The development for this is interesting, because there was another actor named, John Gregorio, who is an amazing guy and an MRT Patriot, who we were originally working with. But as the story unfolded, it became very clear that we needed another voice and we needed an actress in the role. Both Andy, the other playwright, and I, and Nathan, the director, and John, were like, “Yeah, I think that’s the way to go.” Then we found Kristen and that’s when a lot of the play kind of opened up, in a way, and the story opened up. So, that’s who I’m working with on stage.

Who is Nathan Keepers?

Nathan and I worked together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Actors Theatre of Louisville, almost 10 years ago. We kept in touch and continually touched base, and talked with each other about various projects. Nothing has really lined up until this. Nathan is an awesome theatre maker. He has spent most of his career acting and is now segueing a little bit into directing and adding that to his theatre-maker palette. He was one of the first people that we thought of when thinking about a director; for someone who could do comedy, but also, we’re making a new play, we’re building something from scratch. So, to have someone with his experience, and his company, The Moving Company (that is what he does, and he was with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, in Minnesota), he has a lot of experience in building new work. Also, he is just a pretty crazy, awesome, human being.

Andy, my co-writer, Andy Bayiates, is a native of this area [he was born at Lowell General Hospital], and he still has family in this area, and went to school at Fitchburg. Andy was one of the writers for 45 Plays for 45 Presidents. He and I have known each other for awhile (and you, Sean, have known him for awhile, working with The Neo-Futurists, in Chicago). We were looking at good people to collaborate and his name really kind of popped to the list. Of course, my wife, who is always the smart one in the relationship, said, “Hey, why don’t you think about one of the 45 Plays peeps?” He and I started talking, and, I shared with him my thoughts about the play and he shared his thoughts, a lot of stuff lined up. And we have just been working, pretty much for the past year to get a solid script together to go into rehearsal and then continue to evolve and make something.

Will you do a little something for us, perhaps a hat piece?

Sure! [Aaron demonstrates several hat tricks.] I’ve been doing some hat stuff…there are some YouTube tutorials that are very good, about hat tossing and flipping. We’re incorporating a little bit of that because we have some vaudeville-type aspect to what we’re doing. It is also about the props, it’s about finding the right hat…what is the right hat that you can manipulate and make something that you can toss around? As you can see [laughing], we’re still in rehearsal; the show doesn’t open for two weeks. There are some old school hat-and-cane routines. A lot of Fatty Arbuckle’s genius was his ability to throw himself around, and to do some classic comedy bits. We have that in the play, as well, because his work was so important and a lot of people haven’t seen that, so, just trying to get that spirit of that and recreate it, is a good challenge to try to live up to.

To view the interview video, visit facebook.com/MerrimackRepertoryTheatre.

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Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11, 2018.

mrt.org/lostlaughs