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Clowns on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown

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Slava's Snowshow

at the Chicago Theatre

When I was in Ukraine two years ago, I spent some time watching cartoons on TV. Each little intricate gem had its own look and voice. One cartoon used animated puppets and dolls. Others looked like watercolors or lithographs come to life. But all had a similar worldview: dark, wary, disillusioned, but with room for a little romance and even a little hope. They always seemed to take place in the dead of winter, and the characters looked as desperate and careworn as anyone I saw on the streets of Kharkiv, where the factories were operating at 10 percent of capacity.

Yet these cartoons were hilarious. Something about the fatalistic context made the protagonists' futile adventures both poignant and exquisitely comical. My favorite Jewish and Irish humor has the same ambivalent outlook, exhibited in Mel Brooks's 1970 film The Twelve Chairs ("Hope for the best, expect the worst") and in Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes. But even Jewish-American and Irish-American comics are sunnier than the Ukrainian cartoons I saw.

I didn't see the likes of them again until last Friday, when I caught Slava's Snowshow, featuring Russian clown Slava Polunin and an ensemble of fellow clowns. Sketch after sketch was permeated with the same melancholy humor. In one bit Polunin, wearing a big red nose and dirty yellow raincoat, enters pulling a thick rope. For a moment we think he must be walking a huge dog, but a moment later we see there's nothing at the end of the rope. Polunin sighs: another disappointment. Then, without changing expression, he ties the rope into a noose and puts it around his neck. Meanwhile, another clown enters and ties the other end of the rope around his neck. The stage picture is amusing, but its implication--that both suicidal clowns will live because each will keep the other from killing himself--is hilarious in a very dark way.

Polunin works in the European tradition, which is unlike the American conception of clowns as masters of ancient comedy routines, fake enthusiasm, and balloon animals. Europeans tend to rely more on historical theatrical forms like mime and commedia dell'arte. Like Cirque du Soleil--where Polunin worked for a while--Slava's Snowshow takes place on a broad canvas. Made up of discrete sketches, it nevertheless keeps spilling off the stage. A spiderweb is thrown out over the audience. And in the show's most visually arresting scene, first a corner of the stage is covered with snow, then the whole stage, then the set's enormous flats are turned to reveal the snow on their backs. At the climax, a blizzard of paper falls on the audience. The debris from this moment isn't cleaned up between shows, as if to remind us that we're born into an imperfect world.

Slava's Snowshow invites comparison with Blue Man Group, whose imagery is at least as outrageous. But that show is very much a production by affluent people for affluent people. The folks at Blue Man Group clean up between shows, so that the carefully packaged anarchy can be experienced afresh by every audience. The Blue Men tend to play with idealized, colorful versions of consumer goods, and their only message seems to be that technology is fun, getting and spending is fun, and acting out (in a nonsexual way) onstage is fun. The Blue Men are fashionably dressed, well groomed, and fit.

Polunin and his cohorts look like they don't know what a gym is. They appear to be more familiar with sleeping in doorways and dining at soup kitchens. Grappling with such Beckettian subjects as death, loneliness, and the body's slow decay, they look like bums, wearing tattered clothes and misshapen hats. Like Chaplin, they try to maintain their dignity in a world determined to break them. Like Vladimir and Estragon, they must go on: in one sketch, Polunin rolls a huge ball, probably larger than Sisyphus's boulder, across the stage.

According to a news story online, Polunin must now be in his mid-50s, meaning that he grew up in a Soviet Union still reeling from the loss of 20 million lives in World War II. More important, he grew up in a Soviet Union full of deprivation yet primed to compete. At one point Polunin makes a crisp, graceful gesture that suggests a satellite circling the globe, a moment that turns from playful whimsy into something deeper when he adds a sound effect: Sputnik's "beep beep beep." Though this trademark noise once terrified the West and promised a bright future for the Soviet Union, now it serves as a reminder of how far Russia and Ukraine are from realizing that dream.

The night I saw Slava's Snowshow, some of the audience seemed most impressed by the spectacle. Others were likely uncertain how to react to bits that made you want to laugh and cry at once, as when Polunin turned a coat on a coatrack into a lover. And some, like me, were probably awestruck that a show this large and ambitious could also be so filled with meaning.

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