Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"That Beautiful Laugh" at La MaMa (NYC)

[post 254]

There's a thriving clown-theatre scene in New York, but unless you're Bill Irwin or perhaps Slava, you're not likely to get reviewed by major publications such as the New York Times. An exception to that is the three-clown, two-musician, one-hour show, That Beautiful Laugh, which just concluded a sold-out two-week run at the La MaMa Theatre Club. No doubt the appearance of a celebrity —movie and tv actor Alan Tudyk — as the head clown helped the publicity effort. The good news is that Tudyk is quite good, and to me at least showed more range as a clown than did his two partners, Carlton Ward and Julia Ogilvie, though Ward does prove to be the most physical performer, both in terms of character movement and tricks.

Under the title "Turning Giggles and Snickers Into a Hoot,” the Times gave the show a fairly enthusiastic review (“a sporadically sidesplitting show”) and the audience at the performance I caught laughed a lot and gave it a standing ovation. While the show aspires, somewhat flimsily, to a more poetic statement about the need for a deeper, more "beautiful laugh," using a reluctant-to-be-born baby bird as its central metaphor, it is structured around a series of stunts, many of them physical comedy. As the Times reviewer put it, "there’s a lot of running, screaming and general sloppiness... but every once in a while the clowns achieve astounding feats of physical comedy."
Carlton Ward dons a plastic bag
Ward performed the most stunts, wryly introducing each one the same way: “My name is Ian. I will now perform a highly dahn-gerous trick.” (I think that was the wording.) In one, he squeezes the length of his body through a wire coat hanger, getting caught midway with his butt hopelessly bulging through in an unsightly manner. Ward also dramatically wraps a plastic bag around his head as if inviting suffocation, and in another bit horizontally "jumps rope" with a hula hoop passing around his body as he lies on the floor with his butt bouncing up and down. Also amusing is Tudyk's "tap dance" on stilts, with the rhythmic tapping sounds being provided by clown partner Ogilvie dancing far stage-left but clearly visible. A shadow puppet piece about the dangers of the city doesn't quite fit in but is well done and quite amusing.

Here's a one-minute promo from director Orlando Pabotoy:

And a slightly longer, tongue-in-cheek plug from clown-actor Alan Tudyk:

You can read a (separate) interview with Tudyk here.

Now for a few reviews. First the NY Times review by Catherine Rampell:

Turning Giggles and Snickers Into a Hoot: ‘That Beautiful Laugh,’ a Show of Stunts at La MaMa

It’s hard to imagine anything funnier on a New York stage right now than a man struggling to stuff his body through a clothes hanger.

As with all great comedy, exactly why this is so funny is hard to explain. But Carlton Ward, with veins bulging and limbs mangling, makes it work.

Mr. Ward is one of three clowns starring in “That Beautiful Laugh,” a sporadically sidesplitting show at La MaMa.  In just shy of an hour, Mr. Ward, Alan Tudyk and Julia Ogilvie deliver a variety show of stunts and absurdities, often incorporating other simple props, like a bed sheet and grapes.

 At times the show seems like a few actor buddies goofing off — dare I say, clowning around? — after several hours of partying. Particularly at the beginning, there’s a lot of running, screaming and general sloppiness.

 But every once in a while the clowns achieve astounding feats of physical comedy.

 Mr. Tudyk, a Broadway veteran now starring in ABC’s “Suburgatory,” has top billing in the production’s press materials, and he’s plenty good. But, hands down, Mr. Ward, a dancer and circus performer here playing an awkward daredevil, steals the show.

Nearly the entire program, unevenly directed by Orlando Pabotoy, is safely G-rated, with the exception of about 30 seconds of raunchy shadow puppetry — and the show probably didn’t need that one unexpected off-color joke.

Besides the wire-hanger bit, the most memorable sequence has the actors take turns imitating the laughs of audience members, which then begets more audience laughs to imitate. What a perfect reminder of how infectious humor can be.

Scott Brown in New York Magazine:

That Beautiful Laugh (at the Club at LaMaMa)
Orlando Pabotoy’s out-of-a-suitcase clown show features Alan Tudyk, a talented character actor and expert shaper of doofuses, best known for his work on Firefly and Suburgatory. Flanking him are Julia Ogilvie and the beguilingly odd Carlton Ward. Together, they play three red-nosed stooges striving to bring laughter back to a world that’s lost it. They do this in straightforward clown fashion: with deft physical comedy (Ward’s “dahn-gerous” stunts are especially appealing/appalling), poor theater, and poignant foibles. (When a tiny, fragile red egg appears as a supporting character, hold your breath: Tudyk is properly renowned as a jerker of tears.) At 70 minutes, this winning little wisp of a late-night show is exactly the right size for the Club its nested in. Nerdy bachelorette parties, of the sort that prize well-won tears over midori sours and clown-noses over banana hammocks: Check this one out.

A more negative take on the show from the blog, That Sounds Cool:

Theater: That Beautiful Laugh
I think I've figured out why some people are afraid of clowns: it's because they're kids who have never grown up. It can be a little frightening to see adults so recklessly free, so literally lost in their own world; what is excusable in children as an exploratory, exhilarating phase is, all grown up, is almost menacingly silly. (Inane is only a letter removed from insane.) This is worth noting not because Orlando Pabotoy's clown show, That Beautiful Laugh, nor his talented performers, are bad -- they are quite good! -- but because the looseness of the affair provokes a certain tension, even at La MaMa: they might do anything to get a laugh!

Over the course of slightly more than an hour, we'll join the brave yet comparatively incompetent Flan (Alan Tudyk), shy yet physically dominant Ian (Carlton Ward), and deliberate yet excitable Darla Waffles Something (Julia Ogilvie) as they show off their comic repertoire to an unborn egg, hoping to make it fly, either through physical or levit(y)ational means. There's a dance with stilts, and a creepy shadow-puppet song about the "Scary City," plus a "rule of threes" series of performances that include Flan's cryptic non-act (that may actually be fairly impressive); Darla's nonsensical "feats," like attempting to yo-yo with one's mouth; and Ian's "DAHN-gerous" arsenal of the everyday: a clothes hangar, plastic bag, and hula hoop -- kids, do not try this at home!

Still, one wishes That Beautiful Laugh had set the bar a bit higher; the production, like Scott Tedmon-Jones's pull-curtain set, is somewhat primitive, and while there's charm in building something from a ragtag nothingness, it's a wearying sort. According to Flan's fairy-tale prologue, the goal is to restore true laughs to a land that has forgotten them (it still has squiggly, nervous, and Santa ones, to name a few), and yet the show seems happy -- if the final sequence is any indication -- to conjure up and bottle any old laugh. To this end, there's a lot of cheap humor and a lack of developed running gags and/or punchlines: it's what you'd expect of children playing at dress-up, not of adults playing at comedy.

And what did I think?? Somewhat mixed. Maybe I'm jaded, maybe I've seen too much clown and variety work. For example, that coat hanger bit, which inspired the opening line of the Times review: “It’s hard to imagine anything funnier on a New York stage right now than a man struggling to stuff his body through a clothes hanger.” Well, I could sure imagine it because I saw the Norwegian contortionist Captain Frodo do a similar but far more developed and funnier version of this with two tennis rackets while performing with La Clique. But that was in Paris not New York, though the Times might not have noticed had it been in, say, Brooklyn. And in Brooklyn and elsewhere you can see clown shows just as good as this one that the broader public never hears about. But don't get me wrong, I do think this could be a great show, but the bits, the characters, and the overarching theme are all seriously in need of development. 

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