Go Deeper

Clowning Napoleon

Posted August 31st, 2012

Think Napoleon. Emperor? Tyrant? Napoleonic code? Clown? Playwright and actor Amy Frear likes the latter.

“Every time I read about him it makes me laugh,” she says. “The first time he was imprisoned, he escaped after about 100 days. At St. Helena [his second imprisonment], ships were circling the island 24 hours a day. I just had this vision of a little guy still plotting to take over the world.”

In her 2012 Philly Fringe play Napoleon Princess Groupie Newspaper, Amy plays Napoleon.

“Napoleon tries to recruit sea creatures and the audience to get off the island and go back to France. I’ve done a lot of clown work, and he’s based on a lot of those characters,” Amy says.

After the jump: Amy and director Chelsea Sanz talk about working closely on one-person shows, and the frustration of the old shoe.

Napoleon Princess Groupie Newspaper is an amalgam of four short pieces featuring Napoleon, a princess, a groupie, and a newspaper (that’s accompanied by an old shoe). The genesis of the show lies in Amy’s MFA acting studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, actors are also encouraged to produce their own work, often through devised methods. Amy submitted the “Groupie” part to a new play series, and met Chelsea, who selected the piece, then called “Bluebeard,” to direct for the Philly Primary Stages series.

“I really enjoyed the poetry of it, and thought a one-woman show would be a really cool challenge, using the space more and trying to tell the story with lighting,” Chelsea says. “Groupie” takes place back stage during a rock concert, one of the many different worlds that the odd compilation of characters inhabit, and is the first part of the show.

Nearly all of the development of the piece spun out of that initial contact through Primary Stages, as did the trust between Amy and Chelsea. “We have a really good relationship,” Chelsea says. “Amy lets herself be open a little bit to see what develops.”

For her part, Amy says “When Chelsea was working on ‘Bluebeard,’ casting Amanda [Kearns] was perfect—she’s so fierce. ‘Bluebeard’ was so good, I could have never imagined—I trust [Chelsea] completely.”

“I saw Amanda’s image on Theater Alliance, and thought, oh my god, this is Groupie,” Chelsea says.

“I had worked with Harry [Slack, who plays Old Shoe] and Merci [Lyons-Cox, who plays Newspaper] on a film, and Jessie [Bennett] came for auditions and was just perfect for Princess,” says Amy.

When the show begins, Amy says, “The groupie backstage stumbles upon an audience—the actual audience for this play—and tells her story. ‘Newspaper’ is a two-person scene with a newspaper and an old shoe, about the frustration of being inanimate objects. Then is ‘Princess,’ about a young dental hygienist student from Tacoma, Washington, who’s been transported to Philadelphia for this play. Finally, it’s Napoleon in exile. He’s on a camping trip around St. Helena after his defeat at Waterloo,” Amy says.

All of the characters are trying to work through some personal matters, and, Amy says, “They’re talking to the audience and not another person because they’re trying to find themselves.”

All four characters are played by young women—Amy herself plays Napoleon—and at the end of the play is a short scene with the characters dressed in contemporary clothing.

“Hopefully,” Amy says, “the audience will see their journeys as typical to lots of things we go through growing up.”

“Everything they go through is really relatable at its core, and the way they tell it is very original. We have these out-of-the-world characters on the same stage together, to define what they’ve lost. It’s different for each person. For some, it’s a sense of self, for some it’s another person, for some, it’s their other half,” Chelsea says.

“They’re all a little clownish too,” says Amy. “They’re pretty comical in the ways they try to show something to the audience, trying to be seen the way they want. Each character wants something from the audience. Not getting what they want causes them to break down, and have to take responsibility for themselves. But their frustration with the audience is funny.”

If you’ve ever wanted to frustrate Napoleon, here’s your chance. Napoleon Princess Groupie Newspaper runs September 8 through 10 at the Laurie Beechman Cabaret Theater at the Arts Bank, 601 South Broad Street, Center City. Times vary, $5.

–Nicholas Gilewicz