A Bug’s Life

All right, yes: Actor Ian Bell is that puffy caterpillar in loan company Money Tree’s local TV ads.

“I should’ve denied it from the very beginning,” he laughs, confronted with his alter ego. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The ad agency that also produces those masterworks for honk-if-you-drive-by-him Vern Fonk first spotted Bell back in his days at the now-defunct a-ha theatre—where he was busy mocking the Starship Enterprise in Star Drek—and put him to work.

“I’d done a couple other gigs for them,” he recalls. “I was George of Tacoma for Tacoma R.V., in which I was wearing a loin cloth swinging on a vine over a lot of R.V.’s. So it just seemed natural that the next step be a large caterpillar.” Forgive the caterpillar-becomes-a-butterfly crap, but really, Bell has only become bigger and brighter since the Money Tree bug bit him in 1998.

The last few years have seen some of his most resonant work ever, including a heart-wrenching turn as Matthew Shepard’s grieving, conflicted father in The Laramie Project for The Empty Space Theatre. His most pronounced challenge yet may be the silence of Speechless, the comic, dialogue-free show opening this week at the Space with his Bald Faced Lie troupe. The show seems to be attempting the impossible: to make a bunch of sketch comedy actors shut up.

“It’s pretty hard to keep all of us from talking,” he admits. “We’ve actually even had rehearsals where we had to wear tape on our mouths to get used to it.”

Bell says the group has been thinking of just such a challenge since 1997, not long after their formation, and that the evening of written, rehearsed, but verbally quiet comedy is all part of their growing aesthetic.

“All along, Bald Faced Lie’s goal [has been] to explore comedy and expand upon it rather than just sort of exploit comedy and make money off of it,” he explains. “The idea is to take the format and some of the basic comic styles and do as large a variety as possible—from slapstick to absurdist—and also to raise the bar each time we do it. [Speechless] was really appealing to us because it’s the most universal; not speaking makes you really simplify the comedy—you can’t manipulate it with words. We’re reducing it to its purest form.”

A lot of the show was workshopped at Lie’s curated performance salons (Neither/Nor), and the troupe has also been busy packing houses at Re-bar with campy staged readings of teen angst screenplays like Pretty in Pink. (Next year they may aim for satanic classics along the lines of The Exorcist.)

As for Bell’s larval omnipresence, well, it’s misleading. He hasn’t shot a Money Tree commercial in about two and a half years—all of the spots were edited from two long, hot days of shooting.

“It’s very warm; it’s a warm suit,” he says. “I’m in there with two other puppeteers, too—they’re operating my other hands. There’s one crouched down in front of my groin, and another one is, like, hunched over my back. And I’m kind of hunched over part way. So it’s a little saucy.”