Friday, September 19, 2014

Send In The Clowns

According to Wikipedia, schadenfreude is "the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fall or suffer misfortune." Since the day one primitive man watched another get hit on the head by a coconut, physical comedy has progressed from slipping on a banana peel to the point where the art of clowning is taught at schools like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College (here in San FranciscoCircus Center runs a popular Clown Conservatory).

Today, clowning has achieved a level of professionalism that could only have been dreamed of in the early days of vaudeville and touring circuses.

While many credit the Commedia dell'arte with creating a set of stock comic characters during the 16th century, it wasn't until the advent of silent film that a library of recorded physical comedy became available to the masses. Since then, audiences have been able to study and be inspired by the antics of such great clowns as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, The Three Stooges, and Laurel and Hardy. In reviewing The Mack Sennett Collection Volume One for The New York Times, J. Hoberman wrote:
"Sennett’s films can be shockingly callous, steeped in sick humor and gross-out comedy. “The Noise of Bombs” (1914) keeps a baby in continuous danger and has as its final gag the villain blown sky high. Foiled in his attempt to secure a free turkey, the scurrilous antihero of “A Bird’s a Bird” (1915) decides to kill a pet parrot; later in the movie, a dinner guest’s copious chin whiskers can be seen floating in the gravy boat."
If today's conventional wisdom insists that "a mime is a terrible thing to waste," much of that is due to the work of Marcel Marceau (who toured internationally for nearly 60 years, bringing his character of BIP to theatres and college audiences everywhere).

Marceau obviously inspired Robert Shields, a popular street performer in San Francisco during the 1970s who was known for his talent as well as the physical risks he took on a daily basis.

Bay area audiences recently received an odd opportunity when clowns of radically different ages, levels of talent, and years of experience performed in theatres two blocks apart. The contrast between what was on display at the EXIT Theatre during the 2014 San Francisco Fringe Festival and the opening production of the American Conservatory Theater's 2014-2015 season offered an object lesson in how good packaging can enhance even the greatest talents.

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Because it is an unjuried event, the San Francisco Fringe Festival presents audiences with a peculiar challenge (you pays your money, you takes your chances). While Fringe festivals attract a wide variety of performance artists specializing in physical comedy, the entries can vary from nervous amateurs to polished professionals.

Clowns working in close quarters with their audience must also be able to improvise and have plenty of confidence in their material. Part of the challenge for Fringe artists involves traveling light, being able to quickly "grab" the audience, and working without the kind of fourth wall one might find in a venue with a proscenium stage.

In recent years, shows like The Four ClownsSubmarine, and Pi Clowns have had audiences at the San Francisco Fringe Festival laughing so hard that their sides hurt. Alas, I did not experience that kind of exhilaration with the two clown shows I saw at this year's festival.

Written and performed by Kurt Bodden and Allison Daniel (who met while studying physical performance in the conservatory program at San Francisco's Flying Actor Studio), An Awkward Sensation offers a series of 16 brief skits which depict everything from an annoying fly buzzing around someone's food to a strange and oddly-mismatched balletic pas de deux.

Allison Daniel and Kurt Bodden in An Awkward Situation

Some pieces are quick vignettes, such as the scene in which one character is excitedly talking on a cell phone to a friend while describing this great new apartment he has just leased in San Francisco (and nonchalantly stepping over a dead body). Another smartly written piece offers a grisly resolution to the old Halloween question of "Trick or treat?"

Both actors shine in a series of blackout skits entitled "Superheroes" which detail how an ordinary person became a superhero after an unfortunate encounter with an animal (cat, dog, cockroach, Tyrannosaur, etc.,) that had accidentally been exposed to heavy doses of radiation.

Allison Daniel and Kurt Bodden in An Awkward Situation

While Bodden and Daniel put a lot of energy into their mixture of sketch comedy, mime, puppetry, and clowning, I often found myself wishing they could find a director capable of tightening their material and helping this duo to refine their show.

I was much less entertained watching Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman perform Cabaret Terrarium, a series of lame vignettes that comprise a weakly strung-together story whose success rests largely on the fact that each member of the audience has received a noisy toy to play with for the 60-minute duration of the show. Cabaret Terrarium's promotional material describes the show as follows:
"A man is found inside a block of ice at the North Pole by Norwegian archaeologists. They defrost him. He has no memory of his past. He has a birthmark on his belly in the shape of a frog, a matchbook in his pocket, and a microphone in his hand. And he has a Belgian accent. He doesn't know his name, but there is one thing he is sure of: that he is a singer of the cabaret. Soon, the man learns that his name is Gustave, and he re-imagines for himself a traveling companion: his mostly mute friend and associate Nhar, whom he lost on the ice. With the help of Nhar, Gustave tracks down his family and his past, first in Belgium, then in Colombia, and then finally in the redwood forests of Northern California. The more places he visits, the more he begins to realize the awful truth about his own shadowy misdeeds. The tale of this quest and its dramatic conclusion is told in narrative, musical numbers and re-enactment by Gustave and Nhar, who complements Gustave's deadpan storytelling with his subtle mime routines and musical accompaniment." 
Chris Kauffman and Richard Harrington in Cabaret Terrarium
(Photo by: Ken Stein)

Although Harrington and Kauffman have been working to refine their particular style of deadpan comedy for more than 15 years, as directed by Patricia Buckley, Cabaret Terrarium leaves a lot to be desired (click here for a sample video from the show). Indeed, were it not for the fact that the audience made use of their wooden frog-shaped noisemakers with the level of glee one could expect from a rhythm band in elementary school, this show would be frighteningly lame.

Chris Kauffman and Richard Harrington in Cabaret Terrarium
(Photo by: Ken Stein)

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Over at the American Conservatory Theater, two old hats were performing in their new show (aptly entitled Old Hats). Having risen through the ranks of the Pickle Family Circus, Cirque du Soleil, and developed solid reputations as masters of their craft, Bill Irwin and David Shiner are happily resurrecting the show they debuted in 2013 for New York's Signature Theatre.

Blessed with new technology (reflected in Erik Pearson's video design and production) as well as some stunning costume work by G. W. Mercier (who also created the show's scenery), the two clowns continue to delight audiences with a level of skill and artistry that takes years to achieve. As director Tina Landau notes:
"David and Bill have very different working styles. They're both perfectionists and they are both diligent to the extreme. There are a number of competitions between the two that run throughout the piece. Because of that, one of them is always failing at any given time. One of the main things I did on the project was create a physical world within which their work could live. I feel like it has been my lucky gift to get to work with them because I learned so much merely by observing two great artists work on their craft."
David Shiner and Bill Irwin as two politicians in Old Hats
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While working off each other as rival politicians (or as a smarmy magician and his coyly judgmental assistant), the two men feed on their audience's energy as a means of making the evening a rousing success. Whether recruiting volunteers from the audience or working with the talented Shaina Taub and her musicians, they make old routines come alive with a freshness that is remarkable.

Shaina Taub in Old Hats (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Each clown, of course, has his special solo moments. Shiner scores strongly in a "Hobo Puppet Waltz" while Irwin has great fun as a waiter trying to tame some unruly spaghetti.  Irwin also makes full use of new technologies as "Mr. Business" (a man trapped between the communicative abilities of his smartphone, tablet, and a perversely interactive billboard).

"The Encounter" revives a wonderful duet from their previous show, Fool Moon, in which both men (clad in ingeniously-designed costumes) try to outdo each other with their respective medical regimens.

David Shiner and Bill Irwin as two commuters in Old Hats
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Despite the ability to incorporate state-of-the-art digital mapping into Old Hats, what touches the hearts and minds of their audience are often the simplest, most human moments. Some of these appear in Shiner's classic "Cowboy Cinema" routine.  In "The Magic Act," Bill Irwin uses a more garish costume than he had in the Signature Theatre production to speak volumes with his hips. As Shiner notes:
"Life's not easy. It's a struggle for everyone; no matter who you are, no matter how much money you have, no matter how successful you are -- it's always a struggle. Nobody's perfect. We all feel like misfits, like we don't belong, like outcasts. The clown brings those imperfections to light and we can laugh at them. Clowning succeeds the most when we're able to laugh at the parts of ourselves that we hate (or fear) the most. The clown's role is to bring that struggle to light in whatever way a clown chooses to present those problems.

As we observe the clown trying to solve those problems and conflicts, that's where the comedy comes in because the clown is playing the fool. He's doing the best he can and being the most idiotic he can possibly be -- a complete idiot, someone who can't do anything right. I think the most satisfying laughter is when it heals; when the clown is able to reveal human weakness or human failings in a very comic light. In essence, we're laughing at parts of ourselves that we find embarrassing -- and those things are what make us wonderfully human."
Bill Irwin, Shaina Taub, and David Shiner in Old Hats
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Old Hats continue through October 12 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here to order tickets).

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