Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Clowning Around

Last night Patrick and I went to see "Brick Circk" at The Marsh, a performance space here in San Francisco. "Brick Circk" is playing as part of the International Czech Theater Festival. It's a one-man show by famed clown Stevo Capko.

That's right, I said famed clown. And there's more--I adore clowns. Especially clowns from the Eastern European clowning tradition, which is about as different from American clowning as borscht is from Jello. American clowning is all "Ha ha! That's so cute!" European clowning is all "Ha ha! That's so true!"

Stevo Capko is a clown's clown. He studied at the Prague Art Academy and interned with Switzerland 's Scuola Teatro Dimitri and the Centre National des arts du Cirque in France. Yes, they have actual schools for clowning. That's one more thing that makes Europe better than the United States. That and the fact that they allow dogs in restaurants, which in my book is the hallmark of a great society.

"Brick Circk" is 60 minutes of clown perfection. Using only his body and a small number of props, Capko brings to life a character whose sole goal in life is to get a single gold brick balanced atop a 10-foot-long pole. On the surface it's a lighthearted comedy routine, but beneath that is the palpable frustration his clown builder feels at being unable to complete his task.

This is what great clowning is. It takes a universal struggle and presents it to the audience as something we can all laugh at and sympathize with. Forget the clowns of the water-shooting daisy and overstuffed little car. Those buffoons are caricatures of what the clown was originally meant to be, a messenger sent to tell us that hey, life is hard sometimes but it's okay too.

I'm a huge fan of clown shows. Not that there are a lot of them. In recent years Patrick and I have been fortunate to see three wonderful ones: Slava's Snowshow by Russian clown Slava Polunin, Aga-Boom by Dimitri Bogatirev, and Cirque du Soleil's Corteo. Unfortunately, only Corteo (which is a fantasy on the last dream of a dying clown) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD. You should totally watch it. And the other two shows are still touring, so you might be able to catch them at some point.

But you probably won't. Hating clowns is a popular pastime. There's even a term for it: coulrophobia. Numerous sites exist bemoaning the horror of clowns. My favorite is probably The No Clown Zone, which is the creation of one Rodney Blackwell, whose hatred of clowns stems from his traumatic seventh birthday party. Check out his brilliant "34 Reasons Why You Should Hate Clowns Too."

Strangely, there's no equivalent term for people who like clowns. The natural antonym to coulrophobia should be coulrophilia, but that term is used to describe someone with an erotic or sexual fixation on clowns. So is the term clownophile. And apparently there are a number of people who indeed do find clowns . . . stimulating. Here in San Francisco we have our very own Ouchy the Clown, who brings his unique brand of S&M-flavored clowning to street fairs and community events.

This is all well and good, but what about those of us who just love clowns? You know, in a pure and wholesome way. Why are we (apparently) doomed to be perceived as perverts of some sort? At what point did embracing the whitefaced tellers of truth become crossing over to the dark side of the tent?

Frankly, I think those of you who hate clowns are the ones with the problem. That's right. I said it. You're sick and wrong. And why? Because you're afraid. You know that behind the greasepaint and red nose there's someone who sees the world more clearly than you do, and that given half a chance he'll show you what he sees. So you'd rather cast clowns as demons instead of the truth-tellers they are.

Well guess who's going to have the last laugh? Clowns, that's who. Unless they eat you first. Better check under the bed before you turn out the lights.

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