Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Aug. 20, 2004
The Off Center, through Aug. 29
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min
Picture a small car in the center of a circus ring, clowns exiting the car one by one. Minutes pass and clowns continue to exit: big ones, small ones, all uniquely gaudy, physically exaggerated, alive with riots of color. Minutes pass, and the clowns keep coming. That's the joke, of course: Too many clowns for that small a car. And the more clowns that exit, the funnier the joke, the better the audience's experience.
There's no such car to be seen in Physical Plant Theater's newest show, although one is alluded to early on. There's much else that epitomizes clowning, though, and plenty of it is on display throughout the singular experience of Not Clown.
Performers Robert Deike, Lee Eddy, Josh Meyer, Robert Pierson, Mark Stewart, and Rommel Sulit are a troupe of clowns forced underground when the government's Clown Act outlaws their activities as harmful to the public. As the former bozos try to carry on by passing for straight, the authorities work at tracking down, then torturing, the clowns responsible for the particular horror known as Fatal Friday. Then a young girl Linda, excellently played by Elizabeth Doss stumbles upon the criminal cutups. Seems she wants to join these renegade clowns. Seems she's also the daughter of the state's primary Clown Inquisitor. Intrigue ensues.
Or, rather, ensued. Co-creators Carlos Treviño and Steve Moore have chosen to place their play within a play, and so what we see is Linda and the clowns, post-liberation, restaging the story of the passing of the Clown Act and its effect on the wacky greasepainters of Biggabink Circus. This allows for effective layering of narrative and much food for thought as the recent victims portray both oppressors and oppressed, as clowns play clowns and clowns play not-clowns. This idea is even obliquely commented on during one clown's brutal interrogation.
So there's a deeper intellectual aspect to this show, beyond the resonances between the story's action and the whole War on Terror as fabulated by the current U.S. administration. So yay for that. But that's not to say that simpler, more classically clownish antics are lacking in this multivalenced fantasy.
Especially near the show's beginning, when the troupe and the plot setup are introduced through a series of typical Biggabink gags, there's much physical business that is truly funny, that is almost like watching a live-action version of a Tex Avery cartoon. When Physical Plant promotes these performers as being among the best physical actors in town, they're not just blowing smoke up P.T. Barnum's ass, and this is often reflected in the capers the cast manages to pull off. Even this, though, is not always in the interest of humor. One of the more chilling scenes, perhaps meant to show a community turned against itself, involves a trio of clowns fighting off the deadly attacks of their own knife-axe-or-hammer-wielding right hands; this is staged so well that it comes off as less a reiteration of that hokey movie The Hand than as what precipitated the truer horror in Clive Barker's short story "The Body Politic."
There's a lovely little twist at the end of the show, too, and it works like a subtle knife in severing one worldview from another. But then the show's over, and that's where the problem begins. Because there wasn't enough.
It's not that the audience didn't get its money's worth, mind. It's more that the show runs just 90 minutes, and the story is so fantastic and brimming with potential, the characters and situations are so well imagined, that we're left wanting at least another 30 minutes, dammit, of elaboration.
Seriously. It's not just at the point of "Always leave 'em wanting more"; it's nearer the point of frustration, if only because we know we're not likely to enter a world as uniquely weird and vibrant as this one again any time soon.
So give us more, please, Moore. And you, too, Treviño.