On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
SXSW may be wrapping up in Austin, but here the run of Not Clown, a show performed by Physical Plant, an iconoclastic, very indie Austin-based group, just began (and ends in less than a week, but that’s par for the course). Anyway, last week my counterpart at Austinist, Julie Holden, dropped me a line to say how much she loved the show when it played there, so with that –ist stamp of approval I went to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. Written by Steve Moore and Carlos Trevino and directed by Trevino, Not Clown is a noisy, bumpy ride, but most if not all of the bumps are there for good reason, so from start to finish it’s a provocative, fascinating work. I think it’s fair to say that it left my head spinning at the same time as it stoked my faith in non-NY theater.
It’s difficult to relay some of the show’s central aspects because, as usual, I prefer for people to go without having had things given away in advance, plus bland exposition would kill much of the magic of it, but here goes. The basic premise is that a young woman, Linda Johns (the vivid Elizabeth Doss), has reunited a band of clowns that broke up because in this particular world (the time and place are never made clear) clowning is outlawed and many clowns have fled to Latvia (it’s also never very clear why clowns have come to be so vilified that the ban has been instituted). One thing that is for certain is that Johns comes from a family that is very much anti-clown: her doctor-father (Robert Pierson) extracts confessions from them in brutal scenes that stir up thoughts of news about the US military’s torture methods. Johns has become enchanted with the idea of clowning even though one night clowns tumble in through her window, tie her to her chair, and put on a disturbing show (she might be dreaming, actually, but still, it seems odd that she would be so attracted to clowns after seeing/dreaming what she does here). Later, attempting to ride a unicycle in the park, she runs into Agnes (Lee Eddy), one of the last clowns still around, who accepts Johns’ offer of help in bringing Agnes’ old troupe back together. Johns later writes "Not Clown," a play about the troupe’s recent history, plus parts of her own story, and this Not Clown is that play – sort of.
Though the torture and the suppression of free expression make the story ripe for interpretation as commentary on current politics (or would, if the temporal and physical contexts were clearer), what I found vastly more interesting and effective was the play’s play with the boundaries of theatre. Pretty much constantly throughout the play, starting from when you’re handed your showbill, and then when Linda walks on to apologize for things not having started, Moore and Trevino mess with your understanding of fiction and reality, performance and not-performance. Actors are playing clowns playing clowns, but sometimes they break character, intentionally (as in the “intermission” of Johns’ show) or as an intentional “mistake” in the production: accidental laughter, questioning aloud what’s going on, substituting one clown for another who “walks out” during the performance. It creates a pleasant sense of confusion between layers, and it is a testament to the actors’ skills that they make it work: it’s hard enough to master the portrayal of a character, but to have that character play a character and then (supposedly) unintentionally break character, and to make it all appear so organic, seems like it would require formidable skill. Lee Eddy, in particular, who has to do this probably the most times, is quite impressive. And the show doesn’t let up at the end, where others would acknowledge what’s been going on and wrap things up neatly. Instead, when the end comes no one is quite sure that it’s the real end; the night I went, after bows that didn’t seem like they could possibly be final bows, we all just kind of sat there expectantly for several minutes, not knowing if it was over or if the devilish-deadpan Squeaks the clown (Matt Hislope) was going to come bounding back onstage momentarily or what. That might seem like it would be annoying, but it’s not – it’s a fittingly anti-climactic conclusion to the rest of the show’s voluntary presentation of seams and rough edges, its refusal to be taken straight or at face value.
Because Not Clown’s focus is more on challenging the audience’s experience of theater rather than on providing a smooth, compelling plot, it avoids being subject to some of the criticisms I might have had otherwise, especially since it does its challenging so well. The only place where it started to lose me a little was in the first part, when the play’s aim was still sort of hazy, and there’s a long segment of various clown acts that in combination become rather excessive; even here, one could rightly protest that this excess is all part of the game, but to me it was just a little wearying. Otherwise, though, Not Clown stays fresh, constantly moving and keeping you guessing. It resembles my favorite show from last year, All Wear Bowlers, in the way it forces you to do more than watch – it makes you hyper-aware of the act of watching and the mechanics of theater in a way that would be enjoyable even for someone who isn’t all that interested in the art. And it’s a great chance for New Yorkers to be reminded that there are some remarkably innovative theatre groups elsewhere in the country – here’s hoping more of them make it here.
Photo by Kenneth B. Gall Photography.