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HIGHLY LIKEABLE ACTORS BUT A TRAVESTY OF CLOWN

Print Version

NZ Fringe 2014
RED NOSE REVERIE


at Gryphon, Wellington
From 19 Feb 2014 to 22 Feb 2014
[1hr]

Reviewed by James McKinnon, 21 Feb 2014


Red Nose Reverie has (and is) a fascinating origin story. It is based on the lives of the playwright's ancestors, the Jandaschewsky family, who toured the world as a clown act around the turn of the 20th century. The play offers a snapshot of a life in transit; touring performers of the 19th century often spent far more time en route than they did at any given destination.

Whether as a snapshot of history, an unearthing of a lost art, or an exploration of universal themes, the story of the Jandaschewskys has much potential for further development, and Red Nose Reverie feels like it is part of a process in discovering how to exploit the Jandaschewskys' theatrical potential. 

The production offers a high level of skill and polish from a young company. The actors have a lot of charm and great chemistry with each other. The visual elements – particularly set, costume, and make-up – are also excellent. Writer/director Pritchard and her team have wisely chosen a stylised backdrop rather than kitchen sink realism, which would be ill-suited to the play's episodic structure and countless settings. Designer Penny Lawrence turns the playing space into the interior of a circus tent, and also incorporates some shadow puppetry to help represent offstage events. Jody Burrell's costumes are gorgeous.

Although the bulk of the story is told through realistic scenes of ‘offstage' life, the three central characters, Jandy (Eryn Street), Emile (Kade Nightingale), and Orlando (Michael Hebenton) are always in clown costumes and white-face make-up.

The stylised setting and costumes help meet the play's demand for rapid transitions – although the frequent blackouts work against the play in this regard. Far too many times, unnecessary blackouts kill the play's energy and momentum, a problem aggravated by music cues which cut out well before the next scene begins and thus do not fulfill their purpose of sustaining energy and emotion through transitions; a shame, because the sound design is good, otherwise, and could be exploited more effectively.   

At the same time, white-face clown make-up is essentially dehumanizing and grotesque. So while it does create an amusing sense of disjunction when the characters are in non-performance situations (Hah – clowns on a train!), it does not help create empathy or emotional identification, or distinction between the three characters. Because the characters seem to have little control over the events, as the play rushes from plot point to plot point, there are few opportunities to develop empathy for them, and without empathy the stakes are not very high. The actors are highly likeable but the characters are forgettable.

This clash between stylised and realistic modes becomes most apparent during the scenes in which the clown are represented as performing. They perform their slapstick routines behind the fourth wall, for an imaginary circus audience. So the real audience is trapped in an undefined mode of reception, between the direct engagement we would have (and want to have) with clowns or comic performers, and the “peeping-through the keyhole” mode of realism. A fourth character, Jezebel (Catriona Tipene), adds to this confusion when she addresses the audience directly as a sort of narrator, a convention which makes me wonder: why not do the whole show in direct address? 

Another issue arising from the contrast between the clowns' stylised appearance and realistic acting: where's the clowning? Clown – not the Ronald McDonald / black velvet painting kind, but the kind the Jandaschewskys did – is a demanding, specialised art form that people practice for years. It blends gymnastics, acrobatics, corporeal mime, sleight-of-hand, and takes a lifetime of training and discipline, which is why families like the Jandaschewskys did it for generations.

These actors have lots of talent, but they are not clowns, and while their clown routines get by on charm, they are never more than a travesty of clown, like children pretending to be ballet dancers or your self-styled comedian friend who, upon hearing the word ‘mime', is compelled to bust out a lame ‘trapped in a box' routine.

So here's a critical question for the development of this play: is it intended to honour the art of the Jandaschewsky family, or to tell the story of their lives on the road? If the former, it will need performers with specialised training, and a script that allows them to show it off. If the latter, it needs to figure out what the dramatic action or central conflict is, give us characters that we care about, and put them in situations where they need to make meaningful, difficult decisions.

The play could also magnify its existing interest in the contrast between the public personae and private lives of the clowns. Either way, the story is worth further development and I hope Pritchard keeps working on it.
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