13 July 2009

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal

This show, the most recent concoction by Chicago's 500 Clown troupe, closed this past weekend at Steppenwolf, where it was playing as part of the venue's Visiting Company initiative. If you missed it, too bad for you, because this was a terrific production.

I always find 500 Clown a little hard to explain. First of all, there aren't 500 clowns, only three. (Although, in this production, there are five; plus a small cortege of musicians.) Secondly, they aren't just clowns. The wonderfully talented performers sing, dance, act, perform death-defying leaps... The clownishness isn't only physical; it's also verbal. They sometimes make me think of Monty Python, sometimes the Marx Brothers, and sometimes Looney Tunes. (It doesn't surprise me that at least a couple 500 Clown members are going to be involved in this fall's Goodman Theatre production of Animal Crackers.)

The previous 500 Clown shows I've seen took an established work (Frankenstein, Macbeth) and retold it. Because clowns were doing the retelling, threads of the story inevitably got lost or knotted, but to me the brilliance of 500 Clown productions is that somehow via jokes, digressions, pratfalls, and death-defying leaps, they manage to convey the most central themes of the source works, profoundly moving the audience as a result.

Although I consider myself an enthusiastic fan, until this production I didn't know that 500 Clown's members could sing. Boy, can they sing! 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal is a musical, with clever, irreverent songs written by John Fournier and performed mainly by the remarkable Molly Brennan. While the show took Bertolt Brecht's Man Is Man as a jumping-off point, not much is left of the original source. Instead, what we have is a cabaret show--with hints of vaudeville and many interruptions, digressions, pratfalls, and death-defying leaps--that persistently nudges around concepts of identity: changed identities, what it costs to maintain your identity, under what circumstances you're willing to give your identity up.

High-energy, high-creativity, highly recommended.

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