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.

oh little birdie oh oh oh… whatever they sing is better than to know

on friday night i sat in the small rbc studio at the young centre for the arts, waiting in anticipation for the commencement of the hottest ticket at the canwest cabaret festival, ee cummings rebirth in song performed by the soulpepper academy. The young centre’s artistic director, albert schultz himself, was bustling around the room, trying to swiftly cram as many eager patrons into the small room as oxygen (and presumably fire marshal codes) would allow.
the soulpepper academy is a full-time, paid training program that was launched in 2006 in which ten artists from across the country were chosen to undertake a two year residency to further develop their skills under the guidance of leading theatre practitioners, further their careers through involvement in soulpepper productions, teach in the classrooms of the local community, mentor youth and develop a collective creation. one might assume that these artists were being groomed specifically in their arthur miller, edward albee and david french so that upon their graduation from the academy they would enter seamlessly into the classical repertory tradition that soulpepper upholds so brilliantly. and yet, while i’m sure that the students at the soulpepper academy do work on classical texts, they are also given wonderful opportunities to explore a myriad of different styles and, with the help of musical director mike ross, the members of the academy set about creating their own cabaret for the canwest cabaret festival inspired by the poetry of ee cummings.
the result was absolutely stunning. the music that these remarkably talented artists have mixed with cummings’ words is vibrant and exceptional in its beauty. each performer plays a variety of different instruments from a piano, guitar, flute and accordion, to a slide whistle, a kazoo and a squeaking plastic frog. the rhythms fill the space with electricity and each member of the academy’s beautiful singing voice combines in evocative harmonies which prove that beyond all the talents that will be utilized in the upcoming soulpepper season, these artists are all gifted musicians and singers as well. i found the talent and the profundity of ee cummings rebirth in song to be quite overwhelming.
clad in a delightful array of costumes, some with paper pirate hats, the artists moved about the stage with a hint of clown and a beautiful simplicity and openness to play as they meandered with their bodies, their instruments, the light and their canopy-sail set creating the most stunning pictures, painting on light and with sound. brendan wall sang lily has a rose with such a beautiful voice, such simple, lovely singing from his soul, that it gave me goosebumps. similarly, ins choi sang always before your voice my soul as though it were a rousing anthem, to which one by one the others joined in harmony with great emotional depth. i was not familiar with the poetry of ee cumming prior to this cabaret, and i felt both instantly mesmerized and powerfully moved by the exquisite composition of this poetry and its ability to conjure great imagery and stir up the most vivid emotions. As gregory prest sang nobody loses all the time, i found myself laughing in earnest through tears that streamed down my face, a response which felt obvious to my heart but utterly perplexing to my brain. prest has a beautiful voice that soared throughout the small space.
the most magical moment of the evening was during the song anyone lived in a pretty how town which was sung by a group of artists in view of the audience, while the story was acted out with perfect grace in shadow behind their canopy-sail set. the shadows morphed as the story wove onward, both into one another, to different shapes, and finally grew overwhelmingly large just before the two artists stepped into the light. this song was immensely captivating and was, in my opinion, the most charming piece in the show. there was also a brilliant moment of theatricality as brendan wall played the piano and sang goodbye betty, don’t remember me as a beautiful jazz ballad while matthew kabwe did an incredibly compelling dance, which could have been a long-lost addition to the musical fosse. raquel duffy sat on the piano and performed the perfect encore with may my heart always be open to little, and her sweet, lulling voice suited cummings’ lyrics perfectly.
it was incredible to sit at the young centre and listen to these songs and to realize that they were recently composed collectively by a group of artists, and that ee cummings had not had these rhythms, intonations and harmonies in mind when he captured so much humanity in ink. ee cummings’ genius with words is obvious even in only reading a handful of his work, and so, of course, certain poetic lines jump out of the academy’s rebirth, yet it was remarkable how the music was able to both accentuate cummings’ words, while also expanding it into poignant musical interludes which lent constant fresh perspectives to this poetry. like the little birds that raquel duffy sang about so sweetly, who “are the secrets of living,” so too did I feel like each of the ten artists involved in this cabaret had discovered something insightful, but only through music, poetry, shadow, movement and light could it be shared and heard by those who are not yet too old to perceive it.
As an aside: I would find it most helpful and illuminating if headshots and bios of the artists chosen for the Soulpepper Academy were provided on the Soulpepper website. Especially after this hit cabaret (the first time shows have been added to the Canwest Cabaret Festival to meet overwhelming demand), I’m sure that the public will be looking with anticipation and interest on this incredible group of artists.