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(Originally appeared in UR Chicago , March/April Issue, 2001)



Say Macbeth in a theater where Shakespeare’s hellish tragedy is not being performed, and you’re likely to get hurled off the premises or forced to engage in a ritual involving chants and spit. So ingrained is this superstition over a play believed to include real witches’ spells that thespians prefer to call it The Scottish Tragedy,

That’s why it first seems like the three performers of F, an experimental clown troupe, are cleansing themselves of any lingering sorcery during an impromptu outdoor rehearsal for their deconstructed dramatic caper, 500 Clown Macbeth. They strip off their street clothes in a junk yard off North Avenue and Magnolia on a frigid afternoon and don tartan skirts, crazy shirts, striped wool caps and combat boots, then paint each other’s ears a glowing pomegranate red.

But Adrian Danzig, Paul Kalina and Molly Brennan are really hamming it up for an environmental photo shoot against a backdrop of concrete slabs, cranes, box cars, mounds of rusting scrap and the looming skyline to hammer home their commitment to industrial-strength "Chicago clowning."

Danzig, an inventive physical performer who helped found the puppet-based Redmoon Theater, is one of the organizers of City of Fools -- a clown theater festival dedicated to showcasing some of Chicago’s most groundbreaking buffo talent. F will be joined by Asylum 137; Theatre Corps; Gerkle and Zetta; and Blah, Blah, Blah March 29-April 15 at the Chopin Theater.

As Danzig puts it, this darkly intelligent brand of clowning "is not like Bozo or Ronald McDonald, but like Buster Keaton."

Anthony Courser of the guerilla-Guignol troupe Asylum 137 further emphasizes, "The festival brings lots of different clowns together and shows people that clowning is not just big shoes and tiny cars. Clowning doesn’t really have a limitation. It’s always been around. Every society has a clown – someone trying to stir shit up."

So what exactly is clown theater? Ultimately, the artists agree that it needs to be experienced in order to be understood. Yet, overall, the genre is more closely connected to relationships than sight gags and traverses a spectrum of moods.

"Clowning is about evoking emotion," says Kalina after grimacing his way through a few poses atop a corroded trash can. "Laughter is just one color. The clown explores fear, anger, sorrow and joy.

"Theater has become so passive. We’re a society that is very isolated. We box up our emotions or let them out in voyeuristic ways. The clown lets you know you’re alive."

While these artists do not castigate Ringling Bros.-style clowns, they believe their goofy gags have diminished the seriousness of the art form. The City of Fools folks are more inclined toward Beckett or Fellini clowning, which grew out of Europe’s one-ring circuses that featured a speaking clown. They believe that, with the advent of the American three-ring circus, clowns were forced to give up the intimacy of speaking and opt for grossly exaggerated visuals.

So these Chicago clowns, who combine the best of European and American aesthetics, prefer brainy provocation to pratfalls.

Take 500 Clown Macbeth. In the show, which is set in a real theater, three physical comics stumble onto a stage set for the Bard’s bloody bacchanal. Basing the show on the triangular structure of the "three weird sisters," they proceed to fearlessly compete for the role of Macbeth – moving from the theme of superstition to blind ambition. They play with language as their unified incantations break off and more isolated vocalizations take over. At one point, Danzig straps 200 firecrackers to his crotch and sets them off, claiming there’s a protective piece of cardboard between his kilt and gonads.

"This is a reexamination of Macbeth on an abstracted level," adds Danzig. "We’re looking at how do we as humans strive and what are the stakes."

Anne Goldmann and Alice-Gray Lewis are well versed in the high-stakes arena. Their clown duo, Gerkle and Zetta, are engaged in an affectionate-repulsive tug-of-war in a large upstairs studio at Hamlin Park. Goldmann’s Gerkle, the deliberate damsel in distress, gets herself into ridiculous binds so that Lewis’ cynical Zetta can save her.

Director Noel Williams (herself a clown performing with Courser as an ambiguous horned-and-haloed pair in Blah, Blah, Blah) simultaneously videotapes and shouts out "impulse one, impulse two" as the terrified Gerkle (in a red nose, black-and-gray striped dress, hot-pink boa and tattered ballet slippers) attempts to jump out the window or clings feverishly to an irritable Zetta (wearing a red nose, dowdy housedress and cheap tiara). At one point, Zetta tries to hide Gerkle behind her dress. Then Zetta strips to a black-and-red chorine’s corset to steal the spotlight from her whimpering cohort.

Their act, Does This Mean Anything To You?, naturally brings the audience into their existential shenanigans. Clown theater’s deep-thinking, inclusive aesthetic drove them to form a clown partnership.

Longtime friends, Goldmann and Lewis have an eclectic background that includes traditional theater, music, gymnastics, circus arts and clowning. They, together with Williams (and nearly everyone in the festival), are greatly influenced by Sue Morrison, a Toronto-based clown teacher with whom they studied. Morrison, who co-directed Does This Mean Anything To You?, focuses on intense internal work through the mask-making ritual.

"We do a theatrical style of clowning," explains Goldmann, "that has a very broad range in which all emotions are within reach."

Continues Lewis, "It’s very character-driven as opposed to gags. It’s me blown out a hundred million times."

For Williams, their clowning is an experience everyone goes through together. "The audience wants to be invested," she says. "This is the emotional journey of the clown instead of a funny slapstick routine. Gerkle and Zetta are really taking me somewhere."

While clowning has been closely associated with men (or men in skirts), these women do not view themselves as feminist clowns. "I don’t think about the women’s issue," says Lewis. "I love to clown, and I’m a woman."

They all acknowledge the liberating effects of clown theater.

"I felt like I came home when I found clowning," admits Goldmann. "When you have to put all your neuroses out there, you need to recognize them. You can’t ignore your idiosyncrasies. I can be myself completely."

"Until this," notes Lewis, "I was only invested in theater up to a point. I’m drawn to the idea of creating your own theater. I never felt as connected as I do now."

Molly Brennan, who recently joined F, has a theater-comedy background but now believes clowning is her calling.

"There is such an absolute truth to clowning," says Brennan wearing a red hood with devil’s horns. "So much of acting is ignoring the reality of a situation. In lots of productions, I felt like I had a leash on. Clowning really frees you up and includes everyone."

She then bounds across the junk-strewn playground to join fellow "Scots" Danzig and Kalina in an impromptu manifestation of Macbeth’s prediction that Birnam Forest will come to Dunsinane. They begin climbing a wobbly cluster of trees and, when one of the limbs breaks sending Kalina crashing to the ground, the undaunted clown brushes off his motley kilt and grabs another shaky branch.
"Failure is the modus operandi of the clown," states Danzig, referring to the troupe’s F title. "The clown fails but is out to exist. It’s about risk and struggle. I as a clown need to do this but feel like an idiot. That seems very noble and human on some romantic-poetic level."

Then an unscathed Kalina trudges over and asks, "Who had the closest ear to the king?" He answers his own question. "The court jester. He could go out among the common people. The ruler used the jester to test the pulse of a society."

Danzig, now drawing alarmed stares from the workers in the scrap yard, exclaims, "The clown is in charge of turning culture upside down. When you have a repressive society, you have to see its ass every once in a while." •

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