Review: ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ at Spooky Action Theater

An intellectually manic world, propelled by a charming, whimsical disrupter with an abundance of prickly opinions aimed at the cultural elite, awaits audiences at Spooky Action Theater. It is Rameau’s Nephew, happily for me, far from a sit-down, drawing room comedy full of good manners.

Rameau’s Nephew is an appealing production; a fresh modern amusement based upon the 18th century Rameau’s Nephew written by French philosopher Denis Diderot.  It has been adapted and updated by Shelly Berc, and Andrei Belgrader.

Directed with self-assured confidence by Richard Henrich, Rameau’s Nephew is 90 minutes of fast-moving, well-connected sketch comedy as a representative of mainstream society is debated by a whip-quick, resilient “man-in-the-street.” The comic scamp of a man has several goals; to shake things up and call everything thought solid into question.

Ian Le Valley and Robert Bowen Smith. Photo by Tony Hitchkock.
Ian LeValley and Robert Bowen Smith. Photo by Tony Hitchock.

This satirical work is powered by a mere duo of actors. There is the straight man named “I” (Ian LeValley) and the funny-man called “He” (Robert Bowen Smith). The two can compare very well to the best of Abbott and Costello or Key and Peele. You pick your own particular cultural reference. If you a classic cinema-buff, think an amped-up Wallace Shawn’s My Dinner with Andre played at jester quick time with a sit-down around a table.

Henrich has empowered the production with a hustling style of rapid verbal word-play emotionally enhanced with brisk physicality and movement like a jitter-bug dance. Even rock-solid set pieces are malleable. Henrich seems quite aware of that famous quote from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto that:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.

So, now a quick hit of a synopsis for Rameau’s Nephew straight from Spooky Action’s marketing material. The show is an encounter between “a madcap genius musician [Bowen Smith] matches his street smarts against a philosopher {LaValley] high ideals.” From that springs the marvelous contrast of two characters who give the show its spark and weight.

As “I”, LaValley is a watcher with an orderly sense of how life is to be lived.  As “I”, LaValley is modest; a “flauneur” relishing his daily walk about 18th century Paris as a way to come in contact with those of different classes. LaValley has a far from haughty manner; more often than not he is exasperated, though approachable, even as he states to his verbal combatant; You have brought the art of debasement to its utmost heights.” Yet, even saying this, somehow, some way, LaValley shows a generous temperament

As Rameau’s Nephew begins and not long after “curtain up,” LaValley’s “I” spots Bowen Smith’s “He”; a penniless nephew of a great musician of the Royal Court. A conversation is struck up. And oh, what a conversation. He is an exuberant contrarian full of ridicule for all that LaValley speaks about; whether money, culture, marriage, morals, wisdom, the virtuous and, of course, the powerful elites.

Everything is a target for Bowen Smith’s character as “He” tosses off barbed opinions with a flick of hand. His speaking style can sound flippant, with a certain pose of easy distain. But as the production progresses, his words and mannerisms become not foolishness, but a survival skill of the dispossessed living with bravado. After all as “He” says, since “the rich and powerful have it all, than just be true to yourself. Or this bon mot; ”To Hell with perfection.” Even lies are really rational; they are a way of survival for the down-and-out and the rich alike.

Bowen Smith is a mercurial presence full of movement and facial expressions playing off of LaValley’s serious aspects. He plays young girls and old men, wives and husbands and ever a small dog. In one of the more delicious scenes Bowen Smith drinks any number of glasses of alcohol to LaValley’s facial consternation. In another, Bowen Smith becomes a coquettish woman who must decide if money is sufficient to give her love away. Then there is an overlong coughing fit scene that drags on, after making its point a few too many times.

The set design of Giorgos Tsappas is a visual depiction of the verbal proceedings. The set is at first a solid box affair, but over time it becomes a puzzle palace of movable blocks on what could be described as a large scale chess board. It is simplicity that brings a chuckle with its malleability.

Brittany Shemuga’s lighting design starts with bright day light; over time other colors provide depth and deeper interest. There are also projections that provide a picture of time and place. Erik Teague’s costume design is 18th century period. LaValley and Bowen Smith are clearly set off from one another. LaValley wears sedate garb while Bowen Smith is vibrant encased with flourishes as the provocateur he portrays.

Robert Bowen Smith and Ian LeValley. Photo by Tony Hitchock.
Robert Bowen Smith and Ian LeValley. Photo by Tony Hitchock.

Rameau’s Nephew pokes fun at the establishment of then [and now], and is not cynical or ironic. With Henrich’s guidance, it has a playful attitude giving greater power to it’s a disrupt focus whether of 200 years ago or now. It is still au currant. 

Spooky Action Theater provides the audience with sharp performance by two actors who perform brilliantly. They were asked to play “smart” fools and did so admirably; thriving in front of the appreciative audience. 

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission. 


Rameau’s Nephew plays through November 13, 2016 at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Note: This play is intended for audiences age 16 and over.




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