Who wouldn’t want to see a lost Charlie Chaplin film? The Tramp’s New World was a screenplay for The Tramp by James Agee which Chaplin declined to produce because he felt, at the time (1949), that the character no longer spoke to audiences and silent film was outdated. While his refusal is our eternal loss, the screenplay has become an opportunity for skilled performer/adapter Rob Jansen to meditate on and revel in The Tramp’s legacy and meaning.
This hourlong theatrical experience is something like a community gathering. Jansen trudges in, not exactly dressed as The Tramp but certainly with a destitute, lost air about him. He sees the audience, is delighted, and greets us, before roping us in to helping set up carpets and tarps about the space. He has something to show us, having found us here: Rob Jansen’s The Tramp’s New World.
What proceeds is an engaging but odd mix. We get some of Jansen directly relating what the screenplay said would happen in that film’s plot had it been produced. We get some reenactments, either via projected, original film segments or with the help of audience members. And we get some interludes where Jansen’s character explores his own relationship with The Tramp and the world around him.
Thus there are two possible reasons to see the show. One is Jansen himself, always engaging and artful in his movements and audience interactions, conveying a heartfelt love for the deep humanity underlying Chaplin’s creation. The other is to get a feeling for what The Tramp’s New World would have been had it been made.
And no bones about it – the film would have been a masterpiece and a fittingly bittersweet last hurrah. I don’t want to reveal too much about its plot, except to say that it deals with the Atomic Age, in the wake of World War II, in a similar way that Modern Times dealt with industry. While paying tribute to the character’s classic storytelling traditions, Agee’s story opens the question of just why The Tramp had to leave us – whether he simply had to retire, or whether the changes wrought by the 20th century drove him away.
Rob Jansen’s THE TRAMP’S NEW WORLD
May 6 – 24
Mead Theatre Lab
916 G Street NW
1 hour, 5 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
This production is certainly a better way to experience the screenplay than seeking out a printed copy or having it straightforwardly described, although it must be admitted that, despite Jansen’s engaging qualities, the experience is more of an enlivened arts-history lesson than it is a theatrical tale on its own. There’s sufficient material implied by the screenplay that Jansen could have given us another half-hour’s worth of The Tramp onstage fairly easily, especially given how good he is an inhabiting the boots and bowler hat in the moments he does take them on.
As well, The Tramp’s interludes don’t lead to anything in particular, though they are effective (perhaps unnecessarily) at arousing our interest in the screenplay. The set, sound design, and projections by Andrew Cohen, Veronica J. Lancaster, and Ian McClain, respectively, are attractive and helpful as well. So while the elements of the production outside of the screenplay itself are more or less diversions, they are pleasant and provocative enough, and they certainly do not diminish the power that Agee’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Tramp conjures up for us.
Disclosure: I am an ongoing collaborator with co-director Elena Day. This did not affect my review.