Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Physical Comedy at the NY Clown-Theatre Festival


Clown is to physical comedy as what is to what?

Yeah, I don't know either, but I think there's a reason we usually view clowns more in terms of moving than talking, and it's not just the association with the circus. Clowns are open and "naive" beings who wear their heart and their vulnerability on their sleeve. Everything is out there. Instead of hiding behind words, they sport these malleable bodies that glaringly reflect their aspirations and their downfalls. As the pioneering choreographer Martha Graham put it, "nothing is more revealing than movement."

And so it was at this year's seventh-annual, best-ever New York Clown-Theatre Festivalagain ably directed by the hard-working Audrey Crabtree and Robert Honeywell. I probably caught "only" half of the more than thirty shows staged in Williamsburg's vibrant Brick Theatre, but came away with a rich sampling of movement styles. I didn't go as a critic and didn't take any notes, so I'm just going to highlight two productions for their physical comedy chops, with honorable mentions to everyone else for strong work and some inspired moments.

The Dingbat Show

This is a bawdy and brash cabaret show out of L.A., with enough raw energy to take command in the noisiest bar setting. Not surprisingly, you don't go to this show for subtle and sensitive clown characterizations. Indeed, some people find Dingbat's humor on the cheap and crass side, while others absolutely love it and keep coming back. To my eye, some parts work brilliantly, others are flat and undeveloped, but if you're in the mood for some raucous fun, not to mention some gratuitous near-nudity (and sometimes I am), this is your show.

I'm singling out these dingbats not just because of their originality and their use of circus skills, but because they make broad knockabout comedy work for a "hip" audience. The troupe (Matthew Morgan, Tina Groff, Guilford Adams, Brandon Breault) has some Ringling clown experience, and they take slapstick that in the circus might come across as stale and tame and make it fresh and delightfully anarchistic. Offbeat characters — a heavily made-up circus clown, an artsy Shakespearean actor, an aggressive m.c. in a baggy suit, and a spunky young lady forever vying to hold her own with them — all slapping the hell out of one another. And did I mention the strip tease group club juggling finale? Drop a club, drop an item of clothing!

The videos below give a rough approximation of what I'm talking about, but for the full effect catch their act if you can.

Click here for the Dingbat Show web site.

Moving Stationery

"Take an object.  Do something to it.  Do something else to it."  — credo of artist Jasper Johns

This solo piece by the Lecoq-trained New Zealander Thom Monckton was for me the most imaginative show in the festival, which is saying a lot. Sigmund, a schlep of a guy, shows up for a new office job and his first day at work turns into a non-stop battle with the everyday objects that surround him and conspire to do him in. The show is endlessly inventive — you can readily envision Thom having spent hundreds of hours just experimenting with inanimate objects — but the resulting material is more than mere workshop improvisation. Everything works together seamlessly: his nervous character, his amazingly supple body, and the magical physical world he creates.

Here are a few samplers, but again don't miss seeing the whole show live if it comes your way!

Thom's work grows out of his collaboration with Kallo Collective, and he also performs in their three-person piece, Members of our Limbs. I only saw an excerpt of it at the festival, but it too was quite strong. Click here for more info.
Click here for the Moving Stationery web site.
Click here for a Jim Moore photo essay on Thom.

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