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On Stage: new fat dogs of the avant-garde

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Fans of international theater are sure to be delighted by Klown: Prick Us and We'll Burst, the American premiere by the German satirical theater troupe Die Hanswurste (literally translated "the blood sausages"). The show, which opens this weekend at the Chicago Actors Ensemble, is a retrospective of the troupe's best work from the last ten years, which they refer to as "clown performance art." It would seem that Chicago has been bestowed with a great honor, to be the first American city to host one of Europe's finest theater groups. But are Die Hanswurste all they claim to be?

Strangely enough, none of the original German performers are in the Chicago production. Their press release regretfully informs that they were unable to leave Europe because of "prior commitments" and were forced to cast the show with American comedians. It also explains that hundreds of would-be clowns showed up for auditions (which were judged by Elig Kemper, the cast coordinator, by phone) but only four actors, all former members of the UnAmerican Activities improv group, were chosen.

Cast member Joel Jeske admits that working with Die Hanswurste was difficult. "Veidt, the director, would only direct us by the phone," he says. "And when Kemper flew out to watch rehearsals, he wouldn't let us see his face. He always wears this sack over his head. It's weird."

Although Kemper was currently "rooming" with the cast at their Lakeview apartment, they said he would not be able to meet with me in person because "the press makes him nervous." Instead he tried to explain the history of Die Hanswurste over the phone. "We are made up of artists and philosophers of the Neues Grossehund Schule ["New Fat Dog School'], a politically nihilistic and reactionary faction of Die Grunen ["The Greens']," he said. "We use klown, the overexaggeration of man's weaknesses, to declare what we really are and embrace it: funny and foul, meaningful and mean, horrific and human."

In interviewing Kemper I noticed that his accent tended to fluctuate between German and English, sometimes even sounding Russian. When I mentioned this to him, he laughed. "We have been all over the world," he said. "Sometimes it is hard to get our accents straight."

Klown: Prick Us and We'll Burst previews Tuesday, September 6, at 8 PM at Chicago Actors Ensemble, 941 W. Lawrence. Regular performances take place Thursday, September 8, at 8 PM, and Friday and Saturday, September 9 and 10, at 8 and 10:30 PM. Tickets are $10-$12. Call 244-1403.

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