Art of the circus, but with an edge

Friday August 10, 2012

NORTH ADAMS -- Pro ducing Artistic Director Ad rian Danzig has often been asked by parents if it would be appropriate to bring their children to a 500 Clown performance.

Danzig's standard answer has typically been "Yeah, probably not." But as of late, the answer to that question has become "Absolutely."

That shift is the result of the company's latest work, 500 Clown "Trapped" its sixth new show in 12 years, which will be performed at the Mass MoCA Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m.

Don't let the word "clown" conjure images of grease painted faces and big floppy shoes. There is none of that. 500 Clown uses circus arts, improvisation, and physical comedy that ushers its performers to the edge of physical and emotional risk. In so doing, Danzig said performances transform audiences into active observers and, in some instances, invites them to be participants.

"We have had our largest kid audiences with ('Trapped') and we didn't really understand what we were provoking. The kids are now aware they they are running the show," said Danzig during a telephone interview from his home in Chicago.

In "Trapped," three clown musicians attempt to free themselves from their predicament after being unexpectedly ensnared. The result is "slapstick mishaps, vaudevillian turns, and untiring resilience." The piece also explores the questions What does it mean to be trapped? To be set free? Who sets the traps? among other questions, according to a statement from 500 Clown's management group.

The performance material is purposefully nuanced. Danzig, who also performs in the show, likened it to a Warner Brothers cartoon where a young child enjoys the physicality of the characters while adults might gravitate toward the irony or metaphors in the work.

"The audience is perfect," said Danzig. "The people who come don't need to be anybody else. They don't need to know anything when they walk in."

500 Clown'sorevious work includes 500 Clown Macbeth, 500 Clown Frankenstein, 500 Clown Christmas, and 500 Clown The Elephant Deal.

500 Clown Trapped, a co-production of Adventure Stage Chicago, was called "wholesome and hilarious" by the Chicago Reader when it premiered in May 2011. While the latter could be said of all of its work, the former claim is not likely to be made.

A YouTube video of 500 Clown Macbeth shows the clowns grappling for the king's crown and causing (mock) physical harm to each other. A slit throat here, a blow to the face there; all accompanied by a generous amount of bright red blood smeared on the appropriate maimed body part.

In his review of 500 Clown Macbeth, Variety's Steven Oxman said, "They have a certain comic intellectualism that manages to be smart without being pretentious, allowing them to occupy the pretty rare space of easily accessible avant-garde."

And Danzig said all of 500 Clown strives for that balance in all of its work.

The company employs both planned elements and improvisation, a known juxtaposition in avant-garde theater. But unlike most theater, a 500 Clown performance does not ask its audiences to "suspend disbelief."

"We are forging belief with the audience moment by moment," said Danzig. "We are hazarding real experience on stage in front of an audience and surviving that (experience) in front of people, as a service to people. They see that it is possible."


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