Photo by Bram Muller ©2014 Tom and Laura Wingfield
“Bouffon Glass Menajoree” (and I do not say this lightly,) is a true work of genius.
Created by Lynn Berg, Audrey Crabtree, Eric Davis, and Aimee German, “Bouffon Glass Menajoree” is a parody of Tennessee William’s classic play “The Glass Menagerie” using the Bouffon Clowning style. I happen to be a huge fan of clowning, and physical comedy and (to get some stereotypes quickly out of the way) this kind of “Clowning” does not refer to the “Bozo the clown” type of entertainment you usually see at children’s parties . True “Clown” (though it can include the “party clown” archetype) is a unique, and incredibly artistic art form that pairs physical comedy a la Chaplin and Buster Keaton, with a breaking of the “fourth wall” (the “invisible” wall between the actors and the audience) and utilizing members of the audience in order to comment on the human condition. Shakespeare’s Touchstone, Fool, Feste, Gravediggers, and Porter – all clowns. Tony award winner Bill Irwin’s work on Broadway in “Regard of Flight,” and “Fool Moon” (among others) – clowning.
Although I am very familiar with Clown, I was not familiar with the term Bouffon until I attended “Bouffon Glass Menagerie.” I had the opportunity to speak with the cast after the show, and the amazingly talented Audrey Crabtree (co writer/Laura) explained that Bouffon originated in the Middle Ages – when beauty was equated with Godliness, and ugliness with the devil. People with disabilities, deformities, etc. were kept isolated outside the community, only to be allowed back “in” once a year for a festival, when their maladies were put on display. These “grotesques” would perform for the crowds and, since their position as outsiders gave them a perfect vantage point to observe the true nature of the general population, would use this opportunity to “call out” the depravity that existed in ordinary society. The priest who was stealing money, the magistrate who was having an affair, etc. But all under the guise of comedy. When their various targets would become offended they would play off their comments as “fooling” and were able to disguise their harsh truths with comedy. In its most basic terms Bouffon is a way to call someone an idiot (much as the common Auguste Clown means "stupid.") Buffon is the artform that "idiots" do. Bouffon, therefore is darker, and more aggressive then other forms of clowning. In the simplest terms possible (though it is somewhat inaccurate) think of the clowning of Bill Irwin combined with the comedy of a great stand up comedian.
“Bouffon Glass Menagerie” combines the Bouffon clowning style with the story of “The Glass Menagerie” to create a brilliant evening that is both hysterical, and sobering, and ultimately quite profound. For all the fooling there is a deep message at the heart of this show, one that calls for the audience to go home, and take a good, long look at ourselves in the mirror. Perhaps we are not as different from these crazy grotesques as we would like to think.
“Bouffon Glass Menagerie” is not for children in any way shape or form. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Be warned – you will be directly addressed by the characters onstage, you will be asked to interact with the action, and you may be called up onstage. But the artists handle this interaction with great intelligence. You may be unsettled, but you will never feel unsafe. And hey, they even pass around free beers towards the beginning of the show. But the beautiful thing that this elegant breaking down of the fourth wall creates is what so many experimental shows try to force and manipulate, but never succeed in doing – both implicating the audience, and investing them in the show in a way that goes far beyond mere spectator. At the end of the show an audience member is given a choice by the actors onstage. The barriers between audience and actor had been so broken down that I found myself calling out (in dead silence) a plea to the audience member to choose one of the options. The actors responded to me, and soon the whole audience was encouraging the audience participant along with me. I hadn’t planned my interjection – it honestly just came out before I could stop myself. But that’s (part of) the point.
But perhaps the most inspiring result of this Bouffon take was that, by contrasting the crazy hilarity with darkly serious moments, I found myself far more invested in the characters and their situation then I have been in many standard productions of “The Glass Menagerie.” Never before have I felt so sad, and empathetic for Laura’s plight, nor wanted her to be kissed so badly by her gentleman caller. Other elements of the show that I had never noticed before came into sharp focus when presented within this new comic framework. Issues of the family’s relationship with their absent father, Laura, Tom, and Amanda’s “otherness”, and many other things became clear, and illuminated the play’s themes as I have rarely seen.
Lynn Berg (B-Dawg/Tom), Audrey Crabtree (Hati Pedestrian/Laura), and Aimee Leigh German (Joyce Depp/Amanda) are nothing short of extraordinary. Their performances are brave, intelligent, devastatingly funny, and completely fearless. You can’t just be “silly” to do what these three are doing – you must be a genius actor who is also a genius comedian. It is no surprise that they have classical training in their background. Eric Davis has directed a smart, incredibly unified production, and every design element was effective, and smartly executed. It has bothered me for quite some time that theatrical clowning is not more well known by the general public. Likewise I am stunned and, in a way, angry that this is my first exposure to Bouffon clowning. Far more people should be familiar with it. If the only thing I am able to do at present to increase public knowledge of this incredible art form is in reviewing it, then I am thrilled to give it my highest praise and say: run, don’t walk to “Bouffon Glass Menajoree.” Don’t ask questions, just go. If I were not about to go out of town I would be back myself, probably as often as possible before it closes. It is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. You will be unsettled, and possibly uncomfortable, and you will laugh harder then you have in a long time. It is not a frothy, lighthearted evening at the theater, but it is a moving, exhilarating, megawatt jolt of a theatrical experience. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced such an effective work of art. Bravo. And encore.