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City of Fools: Chicago's Clown Theater Festival

at the Chopin Theatre, through April 15

By Jack Helbig

Actor-acrobat Adrian Danzig takes his clowning seriously. Even when he's playing the fool--as he does in 500 Clown Macbeth, a three-person send-up of Shakespeare's tragedy--he performs with awe-inspiring concentration and precision. In dangerous bits worthy of Buster Keaton, Danzig shows he's a devotee of the craft of clowning as propounded by Cirque du Soleil, the Big Apple Circus, and a handful of smaller circuses that have sprung up in the last 30 years.

Danzig is also the mastermind behind the first "City of Fools: Chicago's Clown Theater Festival," a three-weekend event that's at least as risky as anything he does in 500 Clown Macbeth. But sitting through this year's offerings it was hard not to wish every performer shared Danzig's devotion and perfectionism. Of the four pieces I saw, only 500 Clown Macbeth felt fully formed and rehearsed.

The plot is simple: three clowns attempt a low-budget, high-concept Macbeth, a production that puts them in some physical danger. The challenges they face will be familiar to anyone who knows Chicago's non-Equity scene. The set looks cool but is extremely precarious--in one of the show's running gags, one part after another collapses. And the performance is beset by every imaginable mishap: missed cues, lighting problems, "spectacular" moments that fall flat.

Danzig and coconspirators Paul Kalina and Molly Brennan perform this intensely physical comedy with energy, daring, and grace. I last saw Kalina in the Flying Griffin Circus as one half of a skillful but conventional clown act, the Bumblini Brothers. Many of their gags were aimed at younger viewers and based on the duo's childish vanity and inflated sense of their own abilities. And the kids roared every time the Bumblinis fell on their faces, whether literally or figuratively. But in 500 Clown Macbeth Kalina does something much harder: by turns aggressive and fearful, victim and victimizer, he creates a clown persona as real as any Shakespeare character.

Brennan, best known to me from her work with the improv-influenced Factory Theater, also blew me away. Courting danger, at one point she falls a good 15 feet, breaking through two trapdoors. 500 Clown Macbeth is classic clowning, as these three aim again and again for nobility and profundity--and fail.

There are some amazing moments in the Theatre Corps' two-person show If You Don't Have Arms, You Cannot Surrender, especially when Rachel Klem and Kelley Ogden engage in the kind of gross-out humor women were once believed incapable of. In this dark comedy about two revolutionaries locked up in a prison, one of them squats and pees all over the floor. Then the other spitefully reveals the trick: the first clown has a bottle under her dress.

By the show's end, all theatrical illusions have been destroyed. But If You Don't Have Arms could use trimming: less than an hour, it still feels a good quarter hour too long.

The same could be said of Anthony Courser and Noel Williams's Blah Blah Blah and Asylum 137's Clowns in the Vagina. Courser and Williams, playing a devil and an angel dressed as clowns, indulge in the many passive-aggressive games of courtship. The premise is promising, especially early on when the two are trying to attract each other and become entangled in a complicated game in which each pretends to be more incompetent than the other. And Williams and Courser have considerable chemistry. But this is the talkiest of the four pieces, and after a while the two seem stuck in variations on the same handful of gags. Finally Blah Blah Blah just peters out.

By contrast Clowns in the Vagina has a strong ending in which all four male performers are symbolically reborn, crawling through a hole in butcher paper. But getting to that point is laborious to say the least: the piece goes through a couple of false starts, has no discernible plot, and involves too much unmotivated clowning around, including one weird audience-participation scene. Jonathan Taylor lures an unsuspecting woman onstage with the promise of a lollipop, then taunts her by holding the sucker at crotch level. At first this bit got big laughs, but as soon as the audience saw the woman return to her seat red-faced, the laughter quickly died away.

Taylor also has the most amazing costume change in the show. Covering himself in a long piece of butcher paper, he somehow manages to remove all his clothing and cover his face in greasepaint, emerging completely naked in whiteface. It's a transformation typical of Asylum 137's unpredictability and creativity in this show, loosely organized around images of vaginas. Watching these performers I was sometimes offended or troubled but seldom bored. Now if only they'd better define their characters and give their piece some structure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mariann Mayberry.

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