The Return of 500 Clown | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Return of 500 Clown

The (meta)physical troupe brings back its brutal takes on Macbeth and Frankenstein at Steppenwolf.


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500 CLOWN MACBETH | 500 CLOWN at steppenwolf

500 CLOWN FRANKENSTEIN | 500 CLOWN at steppenwolf

500 Clown Macbeth and 500 Clown Frankenstein

WHEN Through 7/28 (Macbeth) and 7/29 (Frankenstein); see listings for schedules

WHERE Steppenwolf Theatre Company, upstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

PRICE $30, $50 for any two shows

INFO 312-335-1650

Murder and mayhem get the comic treatment in 500 Clown's interpretations of Shakespeare and Shelley, but recent horrific events lend a dark, bitter edge to the hilarious 500 Clown Macbeth (2000) and the loopy 500 Clown Frankenstein (2003), both revived at Steppenwolf as part of its Visiting Company Initiative. The first was created before the Iraq war, the second before the torture at Abu Ghraib was made public, and neither work has been substantially changed since its debut. But the troupe's cheerful displays of physical abuse--plus its ability to switch from producing laughs to inducing shudders--take on a new dimension in the current political context.

Ambition is at the core of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and ambition is the force that drives the three clowns in this physical-theater performance with a meta-theatrical twist: they spend most of the show competing not to be king but to play the role of king. Clad in rags vaguely suggestive of Scottish sashes and kilts, the performers emerge from the dark area behind the seats perched on a platform above the audience's heads, making noises that suggest the wind moaning, birds cawing, horses whinnying. The descent from their platform is a five-minute ordeal, as they lose their grip, nearly fall, and clamber over one another, creating a living, breathing waterfall of plaid and flailing limbs. When they finally reach the stage, they recite the witches' incantations over recalcitrant props--one "cauldron" (a can with a light inside) explodes.

Besides the chanting, little else comes from Shakespeare. These aspirants to the crown, which dangles from the flies like a cheesy disco ball, are barely human, much less noble--they can talk, but they don't do it often, and when they do they're like children squabbling. Dominating the stage is an 11-foot-tall scaffold they use to try to snatch the crown, climbing over each other and fruitlessly running up makeshift ramps. But it's obvious, even to those who did poorly in physics, that their death-defying attempts are doomed; the paradox is that the performers expertly execute actions meant to display their characters' incompetence. The comic tone vanishes at the end, however, when the clowns' combination of thoughtless ambition and towering ineptitude produces a bloodbath (does this sound like an administration you know?). The effect is chilling, with the resonance of tragedy. Silence and physical action prove powerful tools in 500 Clown Macbeth.

500 Clown Frankenstein is more typically theatrical. The costumes are elaborate, the characters speak more often, and there's something of a plot. One person plays Dr. Frankenstein throughout. Here the set piece is a giant operating table, and the funniest scene takes place once it's finally been assembled, with great and comic effort. The doctor's assistant and a supporting player who aspires to take over the assistant's larger role help create the monster by delivering articles of clothing to the doc, who gleefully pronounces them to be lungs, fallopian tubes, and other body parts.

On Saturdays, in what must be a grueling performance marathon, the original 500 Clown actors deliver both hour-long plays, staged by Leslie Buxbaum Danzig. Molly Brennan is a chameleonic performer whose extreme, instantaneous shifts in facial and vocal expression are the source of much of her humor. Paul Kalina is the most physical of the clowns and to me the funniest, maybe because his characters are the most accessible--he's the audience's way into 500 Clown's loony world, and his timing is perfect. The fey Adrian Danzig creates a stream of facial and gestural tics, which seem better suited to his character as a slavish clown in Macbeth than to the domineering Dr. Frankenstein.

Humor's in the eye of the beholder, but to me 500 Clown Frankenstein is too sadistic to be truly funny. If Macbeth calls to mind Laurel and Hardy--until the ending, a spirit of friendly cooperation pervades the piece--Frankenstein suggests the Three Stooges. 500 Clown even borrows abundantly from their physical shtick. An early sequence sets the tone: Frankenstein, frustrated with his bumbling assistant, aims flying kicks at the table, pinning him against a wall, then ramming him again and again. Later 500 Clown implicates the audience in its sadism--in both shows the actors sometimes prowl the aisles, asking audience members for input on the action--which makes Frankenstein very uncomfortable to watch: you're viscerally aware of how easily groupthink can lead to the abuse of a scorned person. But ultimately I found it less tragic and less moving than Macbeth, where I identified with the bewildered innocents awash in blood, whose look seemed to say "How did we get here?"

When people are getting the news via The Daily Show and buying Bono's clothing line to support developing countries, you know they need some entertainment to help the medicine go down. Physical treatments of literary classics can work the same way, but as another current production proves, they aren't easy to pull off. An adaptation of Cervantes' classic novel by the Eleffant Foot Co., Two Figs for the Great Captain or The Revived Adventures of Don Quixote, sticks so closely to the text that it never takes off (review in Section 2). 500 Clown mines the originals--the troupe spends years on its shows--then transforms what it's unearthed, using nonverbal comedy and physical brutality to give its sources new life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): 500 Clown Frankenstein photo by Michael Brosilow.

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