The art of clowning is something that has deeply influenced all comedic-narrative-performing arts for about two hundred years in its most widely recognized forms. In other less specific incarnations, the clown has been around for far longer, with clowning of one kind or another dating back some four or five hundred years, and likely much further than that.
With the ability to wear their feelings on their sleeves, speak to the often unspoken truth of all situations, and exist outside of the construct of social reserve, niceties, or long term consequences, it is no wonder that the clown is an archetype that has become timeless and intrinsic to our lives. In a modern society still bogged down by conformities and projected “ethical behavior,” the thought of going through life without a care as to how you are perceived, and living instead based on how you feel, is to say the very least, enticing.
It is also a practice that is most commonly viewed as ridiculous.
The lifestyle and disposition of the fool or clown speaks simultaneously to our inner child and to our most audacious present selves, yet, these core elements of our personalities are seen as foolish or unworthy of indulging in by society. Likely, this is because they draw attention to our selfishness and perpetual, emotional-instability as a species. It is for these reasons that the clown is of so much value to us all.
To see characters with the audacity to be honest, without a care as to how that honesty will be perceived can be a rather liberating experience. Much of the success of Ubu, The Sh*t, a clown adaptation of Alfred Jarry's absurdist French play Ubu Roi that just closed at Cal State Long Beach, got by on a lot of that liberated energy and a plethora of well honed performances.
For clown theater to become something bigger than the sum of its entertaining and playful parts however, it requires a sense of humanity that acknowledges the tragic distance between how clowns emote on the stage and how we emote in our daily lives. Though Ubu was often great fun to watch and the student cast did a spectacular job of exploring various performance techniques, the blatant irreverence of the play as a whole, as well its willfully laissez-faire nature made much of the play's drunken playfulness feel a bit masturbatory at times.
Jeremy Aluma, the CSULB graduate who adapted and directed this version of Ubu in collaboration with Four Clowns, a Los Angeles based but internationally recognized clown company, must at the very least be commended for their efforts here. Though the show's adaptation veered towards the long winded and could have used some focus in its scene transitions, it did manage to create an energy that was impossible to ignore and an aesthetic that was entirely unique. The various members of the creative team must also be applauded for their efforts in those matters. This production, like nearly all I've seen tied to Cal State, was very handsome to look at, even at its most grotesque.
Ubu's plot, about a ruthless and disgusting king's unquenchable desire for all things debauched and selfish, is seemingly rather insignificant, except for setting the stage for a series of scenes that attempt to challenge our general thoughts on what would be deemed as “decent, humane behavior,” so besides that , I'll spare you a summery. This show was not about its plot and to be honest, the more I let go of trying to understand exactly what was going on on stage, the more I was able to enjoy myself.
Four Clown's version of Ubu was at once obscene and accessible, equal parts gleefully defiant and playfully immersive. It's broad theatrical style and the persistently lewd subject matter encouraged the young cast to dive head first into the material and their work was universally fantastic. The majority of the lead roles changed cast members from scene to scene, creating a sort of drunken, spontaneous energy, and allowing the cast multitudes of opportunities to explore a great range of styles and possibilities. As an entertaining night out and as a learning tool for the students both cast in Ubu and viewing the performance, it proved to be an invaluable experience. As a work of lasting impact or theatrical relevance however, it left something to be desired.
Having not read the source material for Ubu, it is hard to determine exactly what the underlying message, tone, or goal this play contains in its original DNA, besides that of general, anarchistic, theatrical spectacle. It's opening night caused a riot when it premiered in 1896 and many of those in attendance thought that they were at the forefront of something revolutionary.
In this era of theater, uptight and closed minded audiences are even more a threat to the survival of the art form than ever, and the necessity to keep young audiences engaged, rather than having the theater become a museum of its former self is all the more pressing.
If there was ever a time in the history of theater where we needed a theatrical revolution, that time is now.
Yet, while Ubu's playfully defiant spirit and it's plethora of penis and poop jokes remain just as funny and audacious as ever, this adaptation focused on the type of referential humor that TV shows like Family Guy have made immensely popular over the last decade, the type of humor that makes its mark momentarily and then evaporate just as quickly as they arrived. Like that one acquaintance of yours that only quotes movies and TV shows when they speak, leaving you to wonder if they really have any sense of humor or opinion of their own at all. In other words, this adaptation is not, unfortunately, the fuse with which to start that new theatrical revolution.
The production should be commended for attempting to incorporate social media as an entry point for audience interaction and for trying to make Uburelevant to a new generation of theater goers. All of its referential, sound-bite humor and pre-show Tweeting do little to elevate or add insight to the play's cause or purposes however.
Finding ways in which to have an audience interact with a work of theater is an invaluable key to its longevity and lasting relevance. I have no doubt that eventually we will hone in on how to make this new language of interaction viable. I also have no doubt that when we do arrive at this future theater, the clown will still be there with us, making us laugh, piercing our defenses and forcing us to look inside of ourselves to recognize our truths and our follies. Till then, we have some spirited experiments to help us continue to move in the right direction. Four Clowns's Ubu The Sh*t was one of those experiments. I came, I laughed, I contemplated the future of the theater a little bit and I even got humped by a cast member. At the end of the evening, I thought that was a pretty good place to be.
- Jonathan Ross
Long Beach Post