Soulpepper Academy’s Clowning Around

I was so impressed with the Soulpepper Academy’s ee cummings rebirth in song at the Canwest Cabaret Festival that I quickly followed Young Centre for the Performing Arts’ Artistic Director, Albert Schultz’s, advice and got a ticket for their Clown Cabaret later Friday evening. Under the guidance of Theatre Columbus’ Leah Cherniak, the Soulpepper Academy artists had created their own performance piece comprised of ten unique, dynamic, clowns in various incarnations and using a variety of different clowning techniques and styles to elicit the perfect mixture of laughter and pathos.
Beginning with some Michael Jackson choreography and an exuberant race to cover the chalkboard set pieces with as many words, both charming and crude, as could be crammed into the space as possible, these clowns were immediately engaging and bursting with energy. The Cabaret was broken up into smaller sketches in which each member of the Soulpepper Academy was featured in at least one. It became clear, through the constant reappearance of certain performers, that there were those who had consummate command of the clown tradition.
Raquel Duffy, as an uncouth clown who continually attempts to seduce her audience as her insecurity and awkward stage fright keeps luring her to surpass all boundaries of propriety, became one of the stars of the evening. She began in a sketch with Gregory Prest in which both attempted to sing Billy Rose and Lee David’s “Tonight You Belong To Me” (1926), a song made famous by Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk, yet Duffy and Prest’s clowns become baffled when their sheet music is missing its last few notes and their song comes to a grinding halt. Prest was particularly hilarious in his grumbling clown whose vocal lilt was reminiscent to that of Stuart Larkin from MADtv.
Ins Choi and Karen Rae then burst onstage with a tricycle and proceeded to hilariously recreate the classic “I’m flying, Jack” moment from James Cameron’s 1997 epic film Titanic. Matthew Kabwe brought the house down with his extremely endearing sweeping clown with a penchant for classical music. Kabwe gives a beautifully, simple, heartfelt performance as the sweeping clown who gets swept into performing the lip-synched version of Gioachino Rossini’s “Largo al factotum,” (more commonly known as the “Figaro… Figaro…. FIG-AH-RO” song, sung frequently by animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)) despite the fact that this clown does not know all the words. Kabwe has brilliant comic timing and slays the audience with a glance as his tongue becomes increasingly tangled in such a long, Italian tongue twister.
Duffy is then joined by Brendan Wall as two musician clowns, Duffy with a flute and Wall with a cello, both vying for a single chair. After a well choreographed bit of the anticipated slapstick, the audience is treated to a magical moment as Duffy and Wall share the chair and their instruments and together, each playing one half of the two instruments, they reach an incredibly impressive compromise. Gregory Prest returns with that infamous magician of indeterminable accent as he tries with utter incompetence to hide a red chili pepper beneath a plastic cup, hoping to trick the audience so that he will not have to eat the pepper. The tables turn magnificently as Prest accidentally burns his eyes from the pepper and launches into a wild and fantastic tirade of eye gauging jokes with theatrical references from Oedipus to Helen Keller and Chekhov, Williams, Shakespeare and even Cats. This is truly comedy gold. Laughter is mixed beautifully with pathos for Tatjana Cornij’s heart wrenching accordion-playing clown, whose ultimate triumph is mirrored nicely in the audience’s sense of satisfaction.
I was particularly impressed by the ingenuity of these sketches and these clowns and I found myself acutely aware of the fine line at play and the tension between laughter and compassion. Clowning is so much about the sense of discovery. The clown has such joy, anguish, fear, or all three, as he or she discovers some new aspect of the world, and the audience is able to share in these emotions as they are lured to see the world through the eyes of the most innocent (and in some cases the most mischievous). At its very best, the clowns’ eyes show a mixture of joy and melancholy as though one can not exist without the other to keep the balance. Such nuance is not wasted on balloon animals. These Cabaret clowns prove that they can evoke both laughter and tears.

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