nytheatre.com review by Collin McConnell
August 11, 2013
The cast of Clown Play
Sex, semiautomatic assault rifles, ugly Christmas sweaters, and clowns.
At its heart, the battle being waged within Paul David Young’s Clown Play is between what do we want, and how do we want it. Artistic integrity versus entertainment. Affable living versus economic freedom. Sex versus rape. In a generation willing to struggle in order to pursue artistic aspirations, in a culture where abuse is subjective and thoughts on what constitutes a relationship are shifting, and in an age where the middle class is arguably disappearing, this is a valuable idea to explore, flooded with questions worth asking.
Unfortunately, all those questions go mostly unasked.
This is not for lack of trying on Young’s part. His text flows easily from one difficult idea to the next (he manages at one point to question war, responsibility, and art – individually – within eight simple lines) and does so in a clever manner and oddly playful setting: clowns squatting in modern suburban America. A homeless couple – Nancy and Tommy – break into a seemingly abandoned house so they might be able to share a Christmas together under a roof. Elisa, a squatter with a soft spot for clowns and a knack for redecorating, has a run in with Barry, a down-on-his-luck clown with an assault rifle who needs a place to crash (played with rich honesty and an affecting simplicity by Ryan Barry). With the four of them - plus the gun - under one roof, existential crises ensue as each finds the need to defend – or reveal – who they really are. And then there is Carol Lee Sirugo as Maria, a woman who is trapped by the violence committed against her, who is struggling to move on and find herself again, and who should be able to come back to her home after being in prison, but just can’t seem to get a break. Sirugo delivers one of the more painfully humorous monologues in the show, which belongs in the category of “Excessive Holiday Over-Share;” her ability to not only allow such a bizarre monologue to build in such extreme intensity, but to also find ease in Maria as she just keeps talking is quite magical to witness.
The designers all deserve a great deal of credit as well for their magnificent attention to detail. Scout Isensee’s costumes range from absurdly over-the-top clown, to a clearly articulated subtlety (the intense clown gets my laughs, but the subtlety – specifically of Tommy’s costume – gets the tip of my hat). Julian Evans’ sound design and Daniel Winters’ lighting working in tandem to accent much of the slapstick is sharp and effective, beautifully in sync with one another (and executed with great care by Stage Manager Bethany Ellen Clark).
Under Robert Lutfy’s direction, however, much of the nuance of the text is lost to over-playing the playful, often turning what is a brief awkward exchange into an uncomfortable several minutes – of which is mostly excessive sexuality, including a brief moment of unnecessary nudity for a cheap sight gag. Instead of focusing on the truth behind the desperation and confusion within these characters (why am I an artist? what makes me an artist? am I an artist? how can I afford to live if I choose to be an artist?), Lutfy opted to focus all the energy on the humor – both present and not – within the text.
It is a play about clowns, after all. And that’s what makes clowns endearing, right? That they’re funny? …But is this a play about “clowns”? Or is it about impoverished artists struggling to find a place (and not just metaphorically, but – and specifically in the case of this play – a literal Home)?
My biggest qualm was in the clowning itself. It lacked much concern for the actual craft. They were rough, seemingly tossed together as an after-thought (with the exception of the clownish combat of Elisa cleanly executed by Marissa, though even that at one point takes a strange debasing turn as she goes from beating someone with a rifle to masturbating with it – which would be fine if I had some clue as to why that was a part of the story). Instead of story, the routines relied on unpolished slapstick and absurd gestures – all of which seemed out of place if these characters are truly devoting themselves to the art. And it is about the art: Barry delivers a beautiful speech on his training with Lecoq, Marceau, and the Institute for Canadian Clowing, “which has a distinguished department in Native American clown culture” (which, it turns out, is true: http://www.canadianclowning.com). Tommy (Joel Reuben Ganz) also has an excellent diatribe on literary theory and how it relates to performance. With all of that imbedded into the text, it seems strange to not pay much attention to detail within the routines themselves.
I walked away from Clown Play wondering why I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I would have liked. I wanted to laugh. It appears the basis for doing the play was to get the audience to laugh. But there was little thought given to how to get those laughs. And I didn't know how to feel about it.
And that’s the question, isn’t it?