Theatre Review: MadLab’s Clowntime is Over is an Uproarious Comedy About Loneliness and Pain
Joseph E. Green’s Clowntime is Over is named for an Elvis Costello song and shares with the Costello an encroaching sense of paranoia and desperation.
We open with Max P. Twinkle (Andy Batt), a clown, hungover, at the end of his rope. This degraded Pagliacci is doing the only thing he can picture himself doing: making what one could generously call a game attempt at performing his throwback of an afternoon kids’ show even with the suspicion no one’s watching and, more troubling, the suspicion he’s either dead or dreaming. As he repeats over and over “dead or dreaming” trying to clear it out of his brain, he also repeatedly makes reference to “the smallest are the most favored,” an esteem boost to the children he still ostensibly does this for but also as a salve for someone who’s felt small for a long time.
His two funny animal sidekicks appear, Tidy the Llama (Chad Hewitt) and Susie the Bunny (Shana Kramer), but Max is dismayed to find neither remembers the actor who should be under those costumes – they’ve emerged today as their characters, farm animals with raging adolescent hormones. Tidy, in particular, is disturbing as he recounts visions of suffocating on dead flowers being returned to him from Susie Possum, the unrequited object of his affection.
The three scenes that make up Clowntime is Over take place over two weeks as Twinkle gets more and more desperate. He goes back and forth from the Box of Stuff to the Box of Knowledge (which he snarls “was never a popular segment”) as Tidy and Susie alternately try to console him and play out an adorable push-pull of their own. What punctuates all of this is the set’s snake, depicted as a cage full of foliage with a glowing red light when it growls. A guttural, inarticulate Greek Chorus whose only commentary is that life is a lead up to death. What might be too obvious in the symbol of the snake is defused by a winking nod to Ouroboros paired with a crackling appearance by Paco the Mouse. Paco is played brilliantly by Stephen Woosley, who comes close to stealing the entire show in his one scene, a charming cynic who accepts his role in keeping the snake fed as the culmination in a life he still mostly sees the good in. After the interlude with Paco, things escalate including the flash of a razor blade, a bottle of whiskey, and a struggle to regain courage, until it ends the only way it really can.
While Clowntime is Over is a textbook primer in existentialism, it avoids the pitfalls of seeming too obvious. It works at a frenzied, slapstick pace rich with laughs. These laughs work as a clown falling and triggering the bike horn he – of course – keeps on his belt, that work as a commentary on the artificiality of that device, and work as the audience being genuinely invested in these characters. There’s never a moment when the humor doesn’t work on at least two of these three levels and usually all three line up in perfect harmony.
The other element that keeps the play from retelling the audience what we already know is that the three principals, locked in this hell that nods at Sartre, never stop being human and never feel like they’re talking in lessons. Specificity is the key to something that resonates as deeply as this. Chad Hewitt’s very funny as an intense-to-the-point of unhinged young man (er, llama) who can’t figure out which way to go, coming back to the good heart he didn’t know to look for. Shana Kramer’s Susie is heartbreaking, a canny intellect under a naïvete that’s really a desire to see the good in the world.
Andy Batt has to carry this, on stage for every moment of its run-time, and he’s a revelation – he takes everything the audience knows about sad clowns and alternately leans into and away from that. His is a staggering portrait of a man who finds “the smallest are the most favored” starts to seem like a lie eventually and that your soul can’t always be fed on the laughter of others. Not only that, but this portrait is painted with clockwork-perfect physical comedy. It’s a tour de force I’ll be thinking about for a while.
Batt also directed – with assistance from Chelsea Jordan, Michelle Batt, Josh Kessler, Audrey Rush, and Nikki Smith. The direction is razor sharp, vital with a play that packs this much action and this many ideas with so few elements. Special attention should also be paid to the set and lighting design by Brendan Michna which conjures elements of old local children’s programming but exaggerates and roughs up certain elements so as soon as the lights come up something’s subtly not right and the costumes by Melissa Bair, Michelle Batt, and Nikki Smith, that similarly evoke those memories but simultaneously twist the knife in them.
MadLab’s Clowntime is Over is a wonderful surprise, a jolting comedy that sets the bar high for the season to come. More, it’s a refreshingly acidic tonic to the overheated days at the end of summer.
Clowntime is Over runs through September 5th with shows at 8:00pm Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more info visit http://madlab.net/tickets.html