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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013

Serious Clowning

An experimental troupe visits South Milwaukee PAC

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Testifying to its commitment to offering diverse and innovative programming, the South Milwaukee PAC hosted the experimental Chicago performance troupe, 500 Clown. Employing improvisation, circus arts and mind-blowing physicality, 500 Clown strives to “create a charged environment” that places the performers in a state of “physical and emotional risk.” This they absolutely achieved.

Last Saturday’s offering, titled 500 Clown Frankenstein, was loosely based on Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Three meta-characters (played by Adrian Danzig, Leah Urzendowski and Jay Torrence), each drawn from the classic tropes of Vaudeville clowning, take on all the roles in the story.

An ingeniously built, table-like set piece serves for diverse locales and was frequently put to use in nerve-wracking sight gags involving large pieces of wood snapping together, missing the performers’ bodies by a hair.

Costumes were similarly eye catching (think comically stuffed pants and hoop skirts with armature worn on the outside), and Production Stage Manager Clare Roche’s lighting further supplemented the show’s avant-garde image. At many points, the house lights came up, augmenting audience self-consciousness already created through copious interaction and aisle running. Other effects included the timeless runaway spotlight bit.

In terms of storytelling, 500 Clown Frankenstein moved in jarring fits and starts. Except for several heavily repeated key lines—most stirring, “I’m not the monster! I’m the helper!”—and brief passages read from Shelley’s novel, the dialogue was largely improvised. This made for long periods in which little was accomplished; interest rested heavily on the clowning antics.

Laughs were common, patrons were tolerant of being gently accosted and vocal participation in the story’s famous mob scene was high. Nevertheless, post-show murmurings hinted at significant bemusement and unease.

This style of theater is not for everyone—it is provocative by dint of discomfort—but 500 Clown must be commended for its supreme dedication to a challenging and seldom-seen performance style. Furthermore, the troupe does ultimately communicate Shelley’s indispensable message that “monsters” are created, not by inborn malevolence, but by cruel social casting.