The fine art of foolery: the return of Play The Fool, E-Town’s “festival of clown and physical comedy”

Chad Bryant and Chris Gamble in Shipwrecked. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Foolery, sir, doth walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”

Twelfth Night III, i.

Edmonton, we are about to have an outbreak — an eruption? an infiltration? invasion? effervescence? collision? conflagration? — of clowns.

With the return of Play The Fool for a third annual edition of foolery, Edmonton’s “festival of clown and physical comedy” sets about demonstrating once again the elasticity of that job description. At the four-day festivities — this year at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns Thursday through Sunday — you’ll meet up with clowns of every stripe, from the wide-eyed red-nosed innocent to the macabre Euro-fantasist, the existential contortionist to the social satirist.

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And here’s a first, says festival director Christine Lesiak, a clown of note herself who’s assembled the lineup from here and across the country: burlesque clowning. Yes, Fruitbowl, the joint work of Cabaret Calgary Productions and the comedy duo Valour and Tea, is billed as “produce-inspired burlesque.”

Fruitbowl. Photo supplied.

“I have not heard of it myself,” says Lesiak, the exclusive occupant in these parts (to my knowledge) of the space physicist-turned clown category of showbiz foolery, whose most recent show For Science! proved a Fringe hit in the summer. She is highly amused by the concept: “They’re fruit. So they peel.”

That show, four performers strong, is part of Play The Fool’s mainstage 18+ Triple Bill Saturday and Sunday. It’s joined by a new show from the team of Candace Berlinguette and Michael Kennard (the Mump half of “horror clowns” Mump and Smoot). In The Performance, a pianist and singer past their glory days attempt a comeback.

Lesiak herself, whose own clown alter-ego Sheshells has starred in such Small Matters productions as Fools For Love and Sofa So Good, directs the third of the 18+Triple Bill offerings, The Daily Deal With Lady. Created by veteran Regina improv and sketch comedy artist Lindsay Ruth Hunt, it stars a home shopping network celeb.

The Emerging Artist Triple Bill features three new pieces from U of A theatre school grads in experimental mode: Lady Be Good, Doll And Oats, Mona Lisa. And the stylistic range is wide, from traditional red-nose caper to black comedy to thriller.

In the festival’s high-contrast Double-Bill are a red-nosed Calgary duo, Chad Bryant and Chris Gamble, in Shipwrecked and Montreal artist Évelyne Lainel in At Home with Gisèle. The former is a clownly adventure in which Swill and Lavy, beached on a desert isle, discover a mysterious treasure map. The latter — “Québecois-style clowning as Lesiak describes “the heightened comedic character” — is a live TV advice-for-women show. Interestingly, Shipwrecked is directed by Jacqueline Russell, At Home With Gisèle by Jed Tomlinson, Russell’s partner in the clown duo Sizzle & Spark.

The All-Ages Spectacular! pairs a circus/comedy show from The Great Balanzo with magic from  Ron Pearson.

Candice Roberts in Larry. Photo supplied.

There’s a full-length show, too,  from Vancouver’s Candice Roberts. In the gender-bender Larry, she dons a frankly fake Old Testament-style beard to explore male identity, from the hoser beyond.

While the number of shows remains about the same as last year’s Play The Fool, Lesiak says “we’ve increased the number of artists involved by having a cabaret every night.” It starts with the (free) opening night cabaret, hosted by Lesiak, a sneak peek sampler of festival offerings.

Paul Bezaire, a veteran street performer-turned-clown curates and hosts Friday’s “vaudeville cabaret.” The Great Balanzo hosts  Saturday night’s “The Best of the Small Matters Physical Comedy Lab & Friends.” And Sunday, it’s the annual “Rookie Cabaret,” featuring emerging artists of widely varying stylistic proclivities. That’s where Bezaire’s own clown Pie makes his debut.

The Sunday matinee at Play The Fool is a chance to hear a panel of clown and physical comedy artists talk about “audience participation in an age of enthusiastic consent.” If you’ve ever sat in a show praying either “pick me pick me” or “don’t pick me don’t pick me,” you’ll need to be there.  

Play The Fool runs Thursday through Sunday at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns. Tickets: tixonthesquare.ca (780-420-1757) or playthefool.ca. Full lineup at playthefool.ca. 

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