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The joke’s on US: "Americlown" puts a whoopie cushion under the nation

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“Americlown” by Quasimondo Physical Theatre.

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When you near the corner of Pleasant and 1st Street, where Quasimondo Theatre has their Fortress performance space, you see a shabby little figure warming hands over live flames rising from a trash can. Coming closer, you see her face is painted like Emmet Kelly’s famous hobo clown. You’re already in the world of Americlown, the art-performance that joins circus with contemporary life, with sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling results.

As keenly realized by the talented troupe, under Brian Rott’s direction, clowns exemplify what Freud called “primary process thinking:” they navigate a pre-verbal potpourri of libidinal pleasures, magical thinking, mammalian warmth and reptilian instinct; 2-year olds in adult’s bodies, possibly with a rubber nose. The cast has clearly put a lot of work into crafting distinct characters: the cowboy clown, the baseball clown, the French mime, the vaguely foreign clown, the party girl, and the aforementioned tramp. Concentrating on physicality and visceral reactions, they give fresh, naively genuine performances blessedly low in the stink of the dreaded “I’m being funny” meme. They communicate with body language, expressive faces, single-word sentences punctuated by high-pitched vocal squeaks or bulb horns.

They are, to be honest, a bit creepy—especially when you enter the theater and they’re ranging around to aggressively cheery carnival music, improvising and possibly even (the horror!) trying to interact with you. Controlling your latent coulrophobia, you settle down, and the show begins—sort of. Quasimondo develops their works from group process, which means we’re seeing the joint production of a dozen or so minds, grown, rather than scripted. There’s no real beginning: they wander in and start to do things. A series of sketches unfold in the organic rhythms of music, dance, or even sculpture, more than narrative theater. There’s no real end to the show either, there’s a sort of juggle-a-thon, and the clowns wander off; you feel a bit like an anthropologist who’s stepped into an exotic culture that was going on before you and will continue after you leave. Does all this open our hearts to a childlike sense of innocence and wonder? Not quite. The show banks on the gamble that a look at America from a clown’s-eye view will shed new light, and often enough, it pays off, abundantly demonstrating that our country, right or wrong, is really pretty dumb: don’t bother sending in the clowns; they’re already here.

The funniest bits play out detailed scenarios, like the "foreign" clown getting special attention from a Homeland security clown, which escalates to an interrogation where Britney Spears music, played as torture, brings both parties to screaming agony. In another sketch, General Custer trains his troops in Indian-slaughter, then has cross-cultural encounter with catastrophic results. Mexican clowns try to scale a stepladder border fence and sneak past a dim-witted guard. In a solo piece, Miller’s hobo manipulates our sympathies—just like real panhandlers do— only to produce prodigious quantities of booze. Other themes include party culture, drunk driving (in a clever innovation on the old “clowns in a tiny car” gag), America’s gun obsession; a couple of particularly heavy-handed pieces treat immigrant labor and military drone strikes. A kid’s show this is not.

Jesse Miller shows masterful subtlety as the little hobo; every quirk of her eyebrows communicates volumes; Ben Yela, Liz Faragliz, and Kirk Thompson also bring great expressiveness to their acting; while Jeff Kriesel and Josh Bryan display wonderful full-out physical and vocal characterizations; Michael Davis perfectly inhabits the role of the indispensable scary clown—who, it turns out, really just wants to belt show tunes. The scenic design, by Skully Gustafson and Bridget Cookson, is simply gorgeous: an Art Brut carnival fashioned out of scavenged elements; under Ben Yela’s effectively minimalistic lighting, the episodes unfold in a succession of dazzling eye candy, costumes and props lovingly hand-crafted to exude character and a unified rough style. There’s a strong overall sense of improvisation, which favors organic freshness at the expense of narrative coherence, but lets the players seamlessly “improv over” any technical glitches: no two nights may be the same. Some sketches are overlong and others are flat-out opaque, but the company is true to their mission: show Americans acting on their childish impulses; not wicked, just not very good at impulse control and thinking things out. That wouldn't ring any bells, would it?

You don't have to like either clowns or America to like Americlown: it paints a sometimes cutting, often hilarious landscape of what’s going on just under the surface of our cheery commercial culture. It will be interesting to see what happens when Quasimondo digs down deeper, into the eldritch mysteries of H.P. Lovecraft, for their next show, Love and Cthulhu.

Americlown
by Quasimondo Physical Theatre
Directed by Brian Rott
runs through December 21
8pm; December 15 at 2 pm
100 E Pleasant St
Tickets: $15 for Adults, $12 for Students.
Performance takes place on the 4th floor and some walking is involved. Please contact if you need assistance with mobility.
(717) 34 Quasi or brianrott@thequasimondo.com.

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