Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Clowns to See Clowns

College. My life is a loop of audition, rehearsal, performance, party. There are 4 main stage productions each year and I am determined to appear in each.

An evening of Moliere one-acts has been scheduled and I am cast in 'A Doctor in Spite of Himself.' My Meisner/method teacher has decided to do the whole show as clowns. We all wonder how sense memory and independent activity is going to help us know when to throw the bucket of confetti.

The three plays are rehearsed independently of one another and virtually everyone in the theater department is involved. One of the plays has been transformed into a modern day Italian American gangster/guido comedy and one is being done as a traditional mask extravaganza with corsets, powdered wigs, and small faux birthmarks above each painted lip.

Everyone is having a blast. Our cast is smaller than the other two and rehearsals are quite strange in that we don't wear clown costumes. I don't know how to describe how uncomfortable this is. But imagine going around on Halloween and asking for candy in your regular clothes and trying to convince people that you are some sort of ghoul. It ain't easy.

As the show approaches, my friend Joe and I find out that The Replacements are playing on a Friday night in Providence. We immediately buy tickets and then try to convince our drill-sergeant director/mentor that he should cut rehearsal short so we can see the show. On principal he refuses. We offer to rehearse at another time over the weekend. He refuses. On principal.

We have fevered drunken meetings where we contemplate outright mutiny. What's he gonna do about it? Cancel the show? What if we both get sick? (Let's do another shot, yeah...) It's ridiculous, the show is 10 minutes long and we are rehearsing for 4 hours, why can't he...(insert baby crying noises).

In retrospect I gotta hand it to the director. He stuck to his guns. And he was right to. We had no business buying tickets to a show that started during a rehearsal time. But we did.

If rehearsal went well, we could get out on time and zoom the 40 minutes up I-95 to the Veterans Hall. Up until this rehearsal, things were not going well. We could not find the pace, we couldn't execute the bits, we felt self-conscious and silly. My character was a drunk and a lech and I felt funny with the girls in my lap and the bottle in my fist and the ogling and everything.

Somehow, though, with the urgency of wanting to get the hell out of there, I got it. I actually CLOWNED. I had no clown training, thank god, to draw on, so to feel true clown behavior emerge was quite shocking and obvious. All of a sudden, I didn't want to cut rehearsal short! I wanted to keep going! I was finding it!

Needless to say, our director/drill sergeant had mercy on us and let us go...sure we missed the first few songs of the show but we made it. And I always thought it was ironic that the clowniest band ever The Replacements helped me find my inner clown.

I also was somewhat shocked to realize that I cared more about the show than seeing my heroes perform. I wanted to be the best damn Moliere clown ever. That evening's rehearsal had given me a glimpse of how far humor could be pushed when you gave up the illusion of reality.

I'll never forget seeing my costume for the first time. True to form, the shoes were huge and floppy. The wig was garish. The buttons were gigantic. Somehow I developed a face with the makeup kits we were all required to buy. Our set was a gypsy wagon that was dressed to look like a house, as if we could set out on the road and perform this show anywhere. There were large colored boxes strewn around the stage to be used as necessary as tables, chairs, horses, trains, or beds.

The mask show preceded us in the evening and they ended their hilarious show in a tableau. The applause rang and then clowns attacked! We pushed our set onto the stage, grabbed the bosoms of the ladies, kicked the butts of the gents, dumped confetti on their heads, mocked them, and shooed them off stage.

What ensued was 10 minutes of chaos and hilarity. The best part about it was seeing my friends on stage with me buried in their clown costumes. There was something surreal about how complete the disguise was, something disorienting and ticklish. Yes, it was Alec who played the father of the girl I was trying to woo, but it was also this strange growling primary color toad who shook his fist and stomped his big feet.

At one point, Alec had to chase me around the stage. I ran up the steps to the top of the gypsy caravan, across the window, and down the steps on the other side. He followed. I ran back up the steps, across the window, and down the other side. The effect was of me entering the house, going through a room and out the other door.

The third time up, I stopped before crossing the window. Alec continued. Thus I've tricked him. He goes down the steps and I lean out the window and wave to him. Why this was so funny, I can sort of understand, but the level of laughter was ginormous.

The gypsy platform was about 4 feet wide, plenty of room for us to run across. But somehow Alec tripped the third time through. I don't know if he was just over eager to nail the joke, or what, but as I stood hidden from the audience, I watched my clown nemesis/real life friend trip over his large clown shoes as he traversed the platform and go shooting out into theater space.

Somehow he seemed to fly upwards and away from the platform instead of down the steps. The audience saw a clown ejected from a doorway 7 feet up. I'll never forget his face as he fell. He was looking back at me through his clown makeup, still playing the part, shaking his fist at me as he plummeted towards the stage. But deep within the makeup I saw him KNOW he was going to hit the ground hard. And oh did he ever hit the ground hard.

I am laughing out loud as I write this, nearly 20 years later. And every time The Replacements come on my iTunes and make me cry, there is always a little giggle to be had.

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