I'm not really a clown fan. At least not when it comes to the iconic American clown popularized by velvet paintings and Ringling Brothers. Something about the hammy mugging, the tired routines, the oversized shoes and the borderline-terrifying makeup always turned me off. Perhaps it's a residual unease left over from when, as a child, I accidentally stumbled across the television adaptation of Stephen King's It, which features a demonic, shapeshifting, killer clown as its antagonist, but something about them just doesn't sit right with me. Such blatant over-the-top slapstick always seemed to convey a desperate need for approval, and while desperation can frequently be hilarious, in the wrong hands, it just seems pathetic. As Smokey Robinson observed, when no one is around, you know those clowns trudge back to their filthy trailer, open a bottle of Old Crow and have a cry.
Eli Simon's direction of Clownzilla: A Love Story, which finishes its run at the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. this weekend, has made me rethink all this. Now, Rude Guerrilla is generally known for hosting avant-garde, occasionally "difficult" and frequently outstanding theater. Did that mean these clowns would scream Beckett quotes with their backs to the audience? Would they silently crawl around onstage, covered in blood, forcing the viewers to question on a metaphysical scale what exactly comedy is? As compelling a theatrical experience as that might have been (if I do say so myself), Clownzilla is something else entirely. For a little less than an hour and a half, I was treated to some genuinely entertaining clowning—red noses, makeup and all—and when it finished, I wanted more. Pretty impressive, considering my lifelong prejudice.
While the handbill pays some lip service to the idea of a greater message surrounding the antics—something about acceptance, social hierarchies and the healing power of laughter—the show's greatest strength lies in its comedic performances, which are uniformly excellent. There is a basic plot on which to hang the laughter —two sad-sack clowns search for companionship in the cutthroat social order of clown high school before eventually finding the perfect match in each other—but when all is said and done, the story is really secondary (as it should be) to the ability of the actors to make us genuinely laugh without saying a word.
With a cast this great, it's hard to single out any one performer, though I particularly enjoyed the work done by Dane Svenningsen as Spot, the most overtly clowny of the five main actors. Like the living embodiment of Wakko from the Animaniacs series, Svenningsen brought a loose physicality to the role that defined his character. As the outcasts, Betsy Mugavero (Hope, all sweetness and light) and Adrian Alita (Toots, clad in a bike helmet and diaper) injected the necessary pathos into their performances. And Adrienne Mueller as one of the "cool" clowns (Prissy) crackled with high-strung anxiety, while her partner, R.J. Romero (Mr. Pants), performed a show-stopping rendition of a Tom Waits song, aided by a monkey puppet. Congratulations also to the supporting clowns—guest actors who worked out their brief clown talent-show routines with the touring troupe—for maintaining a consistent level of hilarity as well.
As someone who doesn't laugh easily (I'm a horrible date), I was pleasantly surprised by the number of genuine chuckles the troupe coaxed from my bitter, sullen brain. The interaction of the clowns with the audience was generally hilarious, and I will warn anyone sitting in the front row not to wear anything that can't withstand a little bubble solution or saliva-soaked marshmallows. I admit, I went into Clownzilla expecting some forced laughter and frozen smiles, but this troupe really brought something special. Maybe there ought to be clowns, after all.
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Clownzilla: A Love Story at Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through May 26. $10-$25.