Godlight goes to the ‘Circus’

 David Spangler as Goshy The Clown.  Photo by Justin Ho

Theatre company delivers provocative fare, dazzling production values

BY MARTIN DENTON  |  Jose Saramago’s “Blindness.” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” John Ball’s “In the Heat of the Night.” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Graham Greene’s “The Third Man.” George Orwell’s “1984.”

What do these 20th century novels have in common, apart from their quality and their deep social consciences? The answer may surprise you: all of them — and quite a few more notable literary adaptations and original plays — have been directed by Joe Tantalo in New York City and presented by Godlight Theatre Company, which Joe founded in 1994 and which he continues to lead as artistic director.

Godlight is one of NYC theater’s true unsung heroes. Sure, they’ve garnered some Drama Desk awards here and there; and sure, their productions get a bit of press, especially when a high-profile author (like one of those named in the first paragraph) is involved. But this extraordinary company, which has perhaps the most consistent track record of producing excellent, thought-provoking, challenging fare with dazzling production values in spite of indie-level budgets, is not the household name it ought to be. This article means to change all that.

That most recent Godlight show (last spring) was “Winkie,” an adaptation by Matt Pelfrey of Clifford Chase’s novel about a stuffed teddy bear who is tried as a terrorist in post-9/11 America. The next one — also a collaboration with playwright Pelfrey — is based on a recent novel by Will Elliott, “The Pilo Family Circus.” It’s debuting at Ice Factory, the highly regarded summer new works festival curated by Robert Lyons and Soho Think Tank — demonstrating that Tantalo and Godlight are at last getting the kind of recognition and encouragement within the indie community that they so richly deserve. “Pilo” will play at the New Ohio Theater from July 11–14. Side note: have you seen how beautifully Lyons and company have refurbished this theater space on Christopher Street? Check out the Ice Factory productions this summer and be delighted.

Here’s the teaser blurb that’s circulating:

“The Pilo Family Circus is recruiting and whether he likes it or not, Jamie is auditioning. He never dreamed of running away to join the circus, but you just don’t say no to a troupe of exuberantly sadistic clowns out headhunting. Darkly funny and gleefully macabre, “The Pilo Family Circus” follows Jamie’s furious descent into the nightmare world of a centuries-old carnival where, amid the acrobats, clowns, dwarves, freaks and fortune tellers, you may lose more than just your way. Jamie finds that his worst enemy is himself. When he applies the white face paint, he is transformed into JJ — the most vicious clown of them all. And JJ wants Jamie dead.”

Kind of hard to resist, isn’t it? Amazon compares the novel to works by H.P. Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis and Stephen King. Oh, and the fact that Tantalo has chosen to stage it tells me that this is going to be something special: everything he does is smart, stimulating and resonant.

But that’s not all that makes me excited to see each new Godlight endeavor, whatever it may turn out to be. The company has developed a remarkable aesthetic over the years, telling stories with economy, immediacy and heightened theatricality. Tantalo works almost exclusively in intimate venues — for years, Godlight’s home base was Manhattan Theatre Source, the sadly now-defunct Greenwich Village space where Godlight was a resident company. Their tiny stage was reconfigured over and over again by Tantalo to create miraculous productions of shows as diverse as “The Third Man,” Michael Maeillo and Andrew Recinos’s musical fantasy “Principia” (which you can find on Indie Theater Now), David Ives’s “All in the Timing” and Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” More recently, Godlight has been a regular presence at 59E59, in their smallest space. Here, Tantalo has worked his trademark magic to bring some of his headiest adaptations to life, including the unforgettable “Blindness,” which was staged in the round within a transparent enclosure; the riveting “In the Heat of the Night,” with the actors blisteringly close to the audience; and the raucous “Winkie,” about which I wrote in my review that Godlight did “a spectacular job realizing a complex script” in a confined and oftentimes problematic space.

I am excited to see Tantalo tackle the New Ohio, which is laid out much more traditionally than the theaters he’s generally worked in. I recall, for example, my very first Godlight show, a production of Brad Fraser’s “Poor Super Man” at the old Expanded Arts space, which had a deep, narrow stage that spectators looked onto from opposite sides. Engaging the imaginations of his audience was (and is) paramount. He and his creative collaborators bring narrative and emotion, while it is always up to us to supply the details in our mind’s eye as we watch and listen. Tantalo immerses his audiences in worlds that are stark and minimalist, but highly visceral.

Which is why Elliott’s modern-day circus horror tale feels like such a natural fit for Tantalo and Godlight. The last time I spoke with him, Tantalo enthused about this project (as he always does), and I am really excited that it’s coming to fruition. Ice Factory regulars — and the other savvy theatergoers who score seats for one of the four performances in July — are in for a singular treat.

Produced by Godlight Theatre Company
Adapted by Matt Pelfrey
Directed by Joe Tantalo
Based on the novel of the same name
July 11-14, 7pm

Part of the Ice Factory Theater Festival

At the New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street (btw. Greenwich & Washington Sts.).

For tickets ($18, $12 for students/seniors):
212-868-4444 or smarttix.com

Visit godlighttheatrecompany.org and sohothinktank.org

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