A company man

Variations on Betrayal: An Allegory for Five Colorful Clowns

The birth of a nation—and a traitor—in living clown color.

The birth of a nation—and a traitor—in living clown color.

Wilkerson Theatre (formerly The California Stage)

1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 451-5822

Rated 4.0

These are times that try men’s souls: loyalty questioned, sacrifice ignored, workers abused. If it sounds like we’re editorializing about crass corporate warfare, well … yeah. But Beyond the Proscenium also takes a tragicomic look at the most gifted officer of the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold.

That Arnold’s name has become synonymous with betrayal is in part the irony under discussion in this allegory by local playwright and poet P. Joshua Laskey, who also directs Variations on Betrayal: An Allegory for Five Colorful Clowns. Laskey gets the historical details correct in surprising ways, using the comedic talents of his actors to clarify the strained and self-serving relationships among the officers of the Continental Army—and illustrating how frankly fortunate Americans are that they were able to win a war they were unprepared to fight.

The story opens with what Hamlet called a “dumb show”: a bit of pantomime by the five clowns, each identifiable by their colored shirts. The Clown-in-Black, played to hilarious perfection by Benjamin T. Ismail, is Mr. Benedict. In search of employment, he joins the Continental Company, an agribusiness in a fierce competition for clients with the well-entrenched, red-coated operatives of the Islander Company.

Of course, we see where they’re going here: opening new territories, wooing clients, fighting it out over innovations and price wars. The business speak of contemporary times lends itself surprisingly well to an allegory about a continentwide war and, yes, the bodies fall. But Laskey also finds a clear way to illustrate how, in any large enterprise, including those political, loyalty only runs one way. When phrased in the language of business, we’re not surprised that Mr. Benedict finds his promotions denied while insider favorites advance ahead of him, or his pay cut, or his insurance benefits denied after he’s injured on the job.

And we can certainly understand why he decides to jump ship and try another company. Only we are aware, as Mr. Benedict, a character in a widely drawn comic tragedy is not, that he will find the same lack of loyalty and reward in his new corporate “home.” No matter what human resources might tell you, no business—and no nation—is a “family.”

Ismail’s manic, sad sack Mr. Benedict is the focus of the action, but he is surrounded by some talented actors who take on, as clowns, a number of roles: As the Clown-in-Purple, Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly is Mr. George, a perfectly pompous and persuasive future “father” of his company. The Clown-in-White, Kellie Yvonne Raines, is at her best as with accents, whether it’s the thuggish Ms. Ethan (of the Green Mountain Boys) or the Boston Brahmin tones of Ms. John, a member of Continental’s board of directors. Jessica Goldman, the Clown-in-Red, does the Brits well, especially Ms. Andre, the ill-fated siren who lures Mr. Benedict over to the Islander Company’s side; while Alysha S. Krumm’s Clown-in-Blue steals Mr. Benedict’s glory as Ms. Horatio and turns out to be a good hand with a cream pie.

The set, by Renee DeGarmo, is delightfully simple but colorful; imagine that Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock had collaborated on the Rubik’s Cube. It ties together the color coding with which Laskey keeps his clowns in order, while still leaving all the space necessary for the madcap antics that put the comedy in this tragicomedy.

And Variations on Betrayal is perfectly timed; how better to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday than by remembering the crushed bodies, spirits and purses that created our nation and still keep it solvent?