I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read the intentionally vague synopsis and saw press photos of MadLab’s production of Joseph E. Green’s Clowntime is Over. I was concerned that I would be seeing actors making animal sounds and walking on all fours as a clown read limericks as if they were written by The Bard while intermittently spouting expletives. Thankfully, Clowntime is Over isn’t experimental in that trite kind of way; it’s a dark comedy filled with witty dialogue that can be enjoyed at face value or analyzed for a deeper meaning. I have my own interpretation of what the play meant, and I’m sure everyone that sees it will have their own explanation of its meaning, all perfectly valid. It’s that kind of piece, art that morphs and shifts perspective depending on what you bring to it.
Clowntime is Over begins on what appears to be the set of a children’s television show circa 1960 with Max P. Twinkle speaking out to his viewing audience before realizing he’s alone; no crew is around and there are no voices over the PA system telling him what to do. As he questions whether he is having a dream or has died, his co-stars begin appearing as their characters in the show, unaware of their alter egos and responding only to their character names. There is Tidy the Llama, Susie the Bunny, and Paco the Mouse, and a snake represented by large, glowing red eyes in an open cage. Over the course of three short acts spanning the timeframe of a month, the characters bicker and bond with no apparent way out of the situation save for the final escape offered by the snake who eventually will need to be fed.
Andy Batt’s Max P. Twinkle runs the gamut from being the character the audience identifies with the most to being the one we understand the least. Mr. Batt has created a voice for Max that is booming one minute and subdued the next, perfectly manic in the style of perhaps a former vaudevillian that has gone from projecting to the back of the balcony in a theatre to a control booth in a television studio. Mr. Batt’s own voice heard during a brief speech after the show confirmed what a performance he was putting on as he sounded and seemed nothing like the character. At first glance he looks like a bit like Emmett Kelley (the famous hobo clown from the 40s and 50s) but his voice and manner is quite different, deadpan but very human. When asked why he smokes Marlboro cigarettes, he snaps back, “Because I’m out of weed.” When it appears he has lost all sense of reason he begins spouting Bible verses to his bewildered co-stars, and his words are dripping with feelings that leave so much up to interpretation, which seems to be the point of this piece. Mr. Batt also directed this production, only misstepping in the prolonged breaks between acts when the characters mingle about with rapidly changing lighting to signify the passage of time; the interludes were too long, and it didn’t seem like the characters had enough business to do in order not to appear awkward.
Chad Hewitt’s Tidy the Llama is quick and alert with perfect timing. There is a moment early on when he moves his head in such a way as to make his llama ears twitch that is eerily authentic, and he really knows how to hold an expression to get a laugh a la Bea Arthur. Mr. Hewitt uses his body with skill without actively trying to be a real llama. His character is one of a man in a llama costume but doesn’t realize it, or at least that was the way I saw it. Mr. Hewitt demonstrates his remarkable ability to listen as Tidy, with his face often responding when words aren’t necessary. When he does speak, Mr. Hewitt has a way of spitting out his words like bullets, very effective in defining his character.
Shana Kramer is sweet and meek as Susie the Bunny, soft spoken but sometimes feisty. Her hair and makeup is the most impressive of the characters with no line of demarcation between her dark hair and her hairline with a solid black face and fine, white whiskers (not represented in the press photos in this post, which were taken while changes were still being made). Stephen Woosley’s Paco the Mouse is peppy and seemingly fearless. He has a smidgen of glitter on his pink nose that makes it appear wet; it’s a small detail but caught my eye. Mr. Woosley can wail in pain with the best of them but makes it very funny. He speaks like he believes what he is saying, and the scene of his demise is creative and even looks a bit hazardous. In a way he plays the most rational part, one who knows his final destination and heads towards it of his own free will. His performance, though brief, makes an impact.
The technical aspects of the show are flawless. Peter Graybeal’s sound design insures that everyone can be heard clearly along with the sound effects at natural levels; this was probably the first performance I’ve seen in months without crackling from wireless mics or screechy, over modulated sound – bravo! The lighting by Brendan Michna is excellently ethereal and appears to breathe, some of the cues being so subtle that they drift out of the storytelling rather than framing or informing it like with so many other productions. Mr. Michna also designed the set with a clock missing most of its digits, large boxes filled with paraphernalia labeled “Box of Stuff” and “Box of Knowledge,” and a cage with twisted and broken bars labeled “Serpent Lair”; it all fits into a wide shot, exactly as would be needed for a “Captain Kangaroo”-type early kid’s television show. The makeup by Suzanne Camilli and Mary Sink is quite elaborate with fine details that hold up under scrutiny in the intimate performance space, and the costumes by Melissa Bair, Michelle Batt, and Nikki Smith serve each character, appear sturdily constructed, and seamlessly blend with the character makeup. This is one talented team, make no mistake.
Clowntime is Over defies classification in a way; it’s as challenging as you want it to be. It’s a very dark comedy one minute, a heartbreaking drama the next, and then it all appears to be some sort of existentialist exercise. It doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, lasting seventy-five minutes with no intermission, and it’s definitely the kind of play you won’t see anywhere else in Columbus. And that’s the point; MadLab performs only new works, and therefore there is a freshness to everything they do (or at least everything I’ve seen them do). That doesn’t mean everything is good, mind you, but the fact that I’m still mulling over Clowntime is Over a day later means something. I laughed out loud, cringed a bit, and thought a lot; what more can I ask for from theatre? If I want to see yet another production of The Music Man, Rent, or The Fantasticks (all of which have been or will be performed by at least three different troupes in Central Ohio over the course of a year), I can – MadLab offers something different.
*** out of ****
Clowntime is Over continues through to September 5th in the MadLab Theatre on 227 North Third Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/clowntime-is-over.html