By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Be a clown, be a clown, be a clown….”
— Cole Porter
“It is meat and drink to me to see a clown.”
— Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act V, scene i
This theatre town of ours is about to erupt in … clowns. And we are not, in this application at least, talking about political campaigns, my friends.
With the return of Play The Fool, Edmonton’s Festival of Clown and Physical Comedy, for a fourth annual edition, clowns of every style, personality, obsession, esthetic — on the spectrum of light to dark, antic red-nosed naif to macabre existentialist— are unleashed into our midst.
The headliners, Canada’s internationally celebrated “clowns of horror,” do have red noses, true. But there’s more of nightmare than dream about Mump and Smoot, morbid clown questers from the planet Ummo, gibbering away in Ummonian and travelling through the world on a gruesome trail of gore and entrails and severed limbs.
The show they’re bringing to Play The Fool for three performances, the breezily titled Mump And Smoot in “Something,” With Thug — in which Michael Kennard and John Turner are joined by Candace Berlinguette — is “their very first, and a classic,” as festival director Christine Lesiak puts it.
It was Mump and Smoot’s calling card when they first arrived in Edmonton, at the Fringe, fully three decades ago. And there’s been a lot of blood under the bridge since then. The trio of nightmares in the show takes our clowns first to a fancy cafe and — flinch now — they order spaghetti, with gruesome results. The second sketch happens at a wake for a dead clown. Mump and Smoot are grief-stricken so vigorously that body parts start to fly off. Mump tries to strangle himself with his own severed arm. In the doctor’s office — wince now — Dr. Mump uses the reflex hammer so enthusiastically that Smoot’s leg comes off and his innards come out, like, well, spaghetti. There’s a kind of existential purity to the way Mump and Smoot try to beat each other to death, until they realize that they’re already dead.
“There has never been anything quite like them, before or since,” Lesiak says. “AND they’re incredibly influential mentors, master teachers.” Kennard, who plays Mump, the more pompous and manipulative of the pair, is a director/ movement professor in the drama department at the U of A. Turner, who plays the whinier, grievance-riddled Smoot, runs workshops on his “clown farm” on Manitoulin Island, north of Toronto. Their archive of students is literally thousands long.
Lesiak, a notable clown herself is specially positioned to appreciate the uniqueness of Mump and Smoot. For one thing, she is in a highly unusual subset of clowns: she first arrived in Edmonton as a space physicist. Her hit Fringe show For Science! takes the scientific method into the world of clowning (or possibly vice versa) in the experiments undertaken by a Professor and Lab Assistant (Ian Walker).
They’ve just taken For Science! to Beakerhead, highly unusual Calgary festivities where arts and sciences intersect for purposes of entertainment. “A lot of science nerds and science nerd-y things!” declares Lesiak, whose gallery of clown alter-egos includes Sheshells and (self-help guru) Aggie. She laughs. “I feel right at home (at Beakerhead); they’re my people!”
The Play the Fool mainstage lineup includes Bubkus, created by and starring Toronto’s Jesse Buck, among whose credits is a stint with the Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria. “He’s so technically brilliant, a stunning mover and physical storyteller,” says Lesiak. In the all-ages show we’ll see at Play The Fool “he creates a fantasy world onstage out of nothing. It’s minimalist, sparse, the absolute opposite of Mump and Smoot” and their riotously gross assortment of props.
A broad spectrum of clowning styles is captured in the festival triple-bill. My Birthday, for one, is the work of Swedish-born Brooklyn clown Michaela Lind, who’s trained in Moscow and New York. “I’m intrigued by this artist, and the differences in style between east coast clowning with its darker, broodier, more Euro- artistic vibe, and the American circling clowning tradition,” says Lesiak of the melancholy protagonist of the show.
Toronto’s Money Fish is an acrobatic trio of (wordless) landlocked synchronized swimmers, an apotheosis of silliness that has propelled Natalie Parkinson Alexa Elser, and Emily Hughes all over the world. “It’s a well-established piece with a life behind it,” says Lesiak of the much-travelled show.
And an Edmonton trio of actors, who create “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare with the indie company Thou Art Here, have devised a clown show that uses their theatrical specialty in an imaginative way. With One Man’s Trash… Neil Kuefler, Ben Stevens, and Mark Vetch play janitors who, in the course of their duties, discover a theatre garbage can crammed with discarded props and bits and pieces of sets. Each object drops them into a different Shakespeare play.
The Emerging Artist Triple-Bill assembles a triptych of new pieces from up-and-comers, many of them actors or improv comics by trade. There’s a “festival spectacular” that includes short pieces from such experienced clowns as Chris Gamble and Jacqueline Russell. And there’s an annual Rookie Cabaret, whose participants are mentored by the best. This year’s edition even includes clown puppetry pieces.
“It’s important to us to have world-class international talent alongside the rookies in the festival,” says Lesiak. And the spectrum of styles includes everything from comedy burlesque to bouffon.
So what is the difference between clowns and bouffons anyhow? Lesiak stops to consider. “It’s difficult,” she muses. “Maybe it’s this: With clowning, you’re laughing at the clown, and the clown is innocent. They may think they’re very worldly. But they’re not. Bouffons are. They make you laugh at yourself…. They’re extremely manipulative.”
The free opening night gala Thursday, hosted by Aytahn Ross, is a sampler, with performance excerpts from many of the shows.
Play The Fool runs Thursday through Sunday at the Backstage Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns (10330 84 Ave.). Tickets and full schedule of shows and events: playthefool.ca.