Monday, March 8, 2010

Tricicle — Live From Barcelona! #3

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If you spend your days in the United States, chances are you've never heard of the Catalonian physical comedy trio, Tricicle. In Europe, however, they're a well-known brand name, almost a small industry, having performed extensively in major theatres and festivals for over thirty years, as well as on tv and in movies, and even as part of the opening ceremonies for the 1992 Olympics here in Barcelona. Founded by Joan Gracia, Paco Mir and Carles Sans in 1979, they expanded their international reach in 1988 by adding a second 3-man company (photo, right), known as Tricicle-2 or Clownic, which performs pieces from the by-now large Tricicle sketch repertory, and which is who I saw last night.

Here they are (almost) winning racewalking gold at the Olympics. Very funny.

Their theatre work is minimally verbal and can easily be followed by an audience not speaking the language, so I'm sure it travels well. It would be accurate to describe what they do as physical comedy, but it comes more from the world of mime than that of the knockabout comedian and has the feel of sketch comedy without the words. This explanation from their website gets to the point pretty well:

Tricicle’s style is the fruit of an era in which visual humor was rising in popularity. Performers such as Comediants, Jango Edwards, and Albert Vidal were an undeniable point of reference for those wishing to devote their lives to the world of theatre and this was why Joan, Paco and Carles (each one separately) decided to give up their free mornings and enroll at Barcelona’s Institute of Drama with the aim of steeping themselves in all the various types of drama techniques. But how they really learned the bases of their unique style was by memorizing the Lubitsch, Wilder and Keaton films they would see at Barcelona’s Filmoteca and, especially, by dissecting and analysing the performances of humorists appearing in Barcelona, which was then a city thirsty for refreshing entertainment.

Gags are the basis of the company’s theatrical technique. All Tricicle shows are replete with gags and have a seemingly incredible average of one gag per ten seconds. The company’s shows are never considered as finished products and are constantly open to the inclusion of new gags as each production progresses, although they do have their limits. Tricicle draws the line at humor based on bad taste.

From the outset, Tricicle avoided conventional mime techniques and opted for a “realistic” acting style based on day-to-day gesture; Action Theatre, the company calls it, thus comparing it to action cinema in which the characters, who often have very little to say to each other, simply spring into “action.” The company’s style is mainly characterized by its dynamic nature, short scenes, frequent changes of character, natural onomatopoeia (with a very occasional spoken word), the dramatic use of stage props and constant surprises. Their concept is that the audience should leave the theatre without even realizing they have attended a “silent” show. There is nothing worse than hearing someone utter “Why are they not speaking?” during a performance.

The performance I saw was energetic, finely tuned, and very well received by the audience. I found much of it inventive and quite funny — for example, the "if men were pregnant" piece, photo above — but there were also sections and entire pieces where it was all a bit too light and safe, too much like television in its choice of humorous topics and how far it would go with them. I started to want more substance for my 18 euros. And despite the name Clownic and a performance style that could loosely be termed clownesque, do not go expecting to see strong clown characters. Their focus is more on the everyday, on naturalistic behavior, albeit exaggerated, and less on the psychology of memorable individuals.

Their last piece, The Waiting Room, was their strongest in terms of sustained gags and creativity, and you payasos out there will appreciate that it ends with a variation on the classic clown entrée, Dead or Alive. Today I found it on YouTube, though performed by the main company rather than Clownic. See for yourself...

There are a lot more videos on YouTube, but definitely check them out live if they ever come to a theatre near you. Click here for their touring schedule.


Jon Davison said...

I think Tricicle's popularity is pretty much limited to Spain, rather than Europe as you mention. Some years ago, I remember that they cut short a visit to New York; the tour hadn't gone well, as apparently audiences there couldn't understand their gestural language. I think that's very interesting, since we are accustomed to repeat the mantra that non-verbal language is universal. Tricicle do use a lot of very Spanish-specific gesture, and I guess that might have been the reaosn for their North American flop.

jt said...

A lot of my European friends talked about them, but then they're mostly clowns so I guess that doesn't prove anything. As far as them using an inaccessible gestural language, that's an interesting point that may have merit, but I didn't get that sense at all. I thought if anything that they were all too familiar. There can be a lot of reasons for a North American tour to not work out, mostly having to do with marketing muscle and know-how. All kinds of far more exotic shows, comedy included, make it in New York.

Jon Davison said...

Yes, who knows why? There must be a thousand and one reasons to fail in NY! I think I just got hooked on that idea of non-international physical theatre, when I read the reviews.
I agree with you, they do actually seem all too familiar and cosy. It's remarkable they've maintained their huge popularity for so many decades in Spain.