Clowns are wild: Imago meets Monica Drake

I’ve been worrying about Sniffles, the star of Monica Drake’s beguiling comic novel Clown Girl. She’s the kind of clown girl you would worry about, though. As her primary clown act, for example, she shapes balloons into religious tableaux — you know, manger scenes, Mother and Child, Annnunciations. She’s aiming ultimately for a balloon replication of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Except that she’s the only one who can “see” these things in the balloons, though her crown of thorns (misinterpreted as a tiara) and her sheep (from the manger scene) are popular with the kiddies. Sniff, you want to say, I’m not sure the religious balloon-tying bit is going to develop into a big clown hit.

But maybe this is the least of her problems. Clown Girl is a close accounting of a series of disasters with Sniffles right in the middle. Sometimes she ends up in the ER. Sometimes, it’s off to the Psych Ward, and despite the writer’s best efforts, you have some sympathy for the medical personnel who think that maybe that’s the best place for her. To quote blues queen Sippie Wallace: “You better get a doctor, honey, have him investigate your head.” Because by that time we’ve gotten a bead on the boyfriend, Rex Galore, the would-be Clown Prince: That just has train wreck written all over it, doesn’t it Sniff? But by that time you’ve already warned her several times. Don’t go on that “clown date” set up by your friend Crack! (Actually, maybe you should think twice about hanging with someone whose name is “Crack”.) Oh, and juggling the fire torches in an overgrown yard at 4 a.m.? I’d reconsider. Especially in your condition.

So yes, I’ve been worrying about Sniffles, because she’s quite sweet actually and vulnerable. She’s that kind of clown — not an aggressively transgressive Cirque clown, a circus clown, a “date” clown or a kiddie clown. She’s an artist clown in a world that doesn’t seem to appreciate such a thing. And though I may think her Kafka bit sounds pretty darn great, it’s a little like the religious balloons — who’s going to “get” your version of “Metamorphosis”? I want to give her career advice. My friends and colleagues know I’m full of career advice, most of it ridiculous. If Sniffles lived in Portland, Oregon, how could she make a living and still exercise her “artistic” sensibilities? Skills: balloon-tying (kinda), juggling (except with fire), a Charlie Chaplin bit (that might end up in the hospital), pain endurance, an intact ethical system, great courage and a knowledge of the classics.

Perhaps because I saw Imago’s production
of Carol Triffle’s new comedy, “The Dinner,” last week, I put one and one together, Clown Girl and Imago. At the same time, it finally occurred to me that clowning was a part of nearly everything that Imago does. (I say “finally” because I’ve watched them a lot during the past quarter century or so, and I say “clowning” with a broad definition of the term in mind. Maybe so broad as to render it useless as a description, for all I know. We’ll see.)

Imago’s two central creators, Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad, both studied with the late French movement artist Jacques Lecoq. I’m not an expert on Lecoq, but his training has a lot to do with the way the body communicates, not mime exclusively, deeper than that perhaps with broader implications. Mask also figures. And from where I sit, mime plus mask comes very close to equaling clown. Lecoq also drew on Commedia dell’arte and its store of stock characters — the lovers, the miser, the doctor, the servants and Arlecchino, the clown — and these immediately project a “story”. “The Dinner” isn’t a clown show, whatever that is. It’s a play with a story, however slight. The characters, though, are “types” of a sort, and they are all played broadly, not naturalistically, almost as though they were wearing masks.

And “The Dinner” isn’t an exception for Imago. The extreme characters, the non-realistic stories, the non-rational internal logic, the distortions of the set (and multi-media in some shows) often show up. And the transgression: They will push into the Red Zone of their audience’s comfort level. They aren’t necessarily as confrontational as a good clown can be (well, some kinds of good clowns), but they often do sneak their actors out into the audience (it happened in “The Dinner,” for example) or bring their audience onstage (it happened to me once, even — they were gunning for me!). A certain sort of humiliation hovers — over the creators, the actors and the audience alike — that is very like my understanding of Commedia. At the very least we become complicit in each other’s entertainment.

Back for a moment to “The Dinner,” which is very funny in its (Triffle’s) own way. The eponymous dinner is being given by Dolores (Danielle Vermette), who met a writer of Romances at a Powell’s bookstore reading (well, more than “met”; they developed a certain pheremonal attraction that they did not resist) and invited him home for dinner with her family (“I love my family…”). Jess Prichard plays her dim, addled but sweet brother Harvey (another Commedia character) with comic abandon. Mouawad is husband John (the cuckold) and somehow reminded me of the late actor Peter Sellers — maybe it was the ’60s-’70s costumes and music — with his accent and wig and manic approach. Mom (Ellen Bloodworth) is somehow above the station of Dolores and John, and lords it over Dolores in that “you-will-never-measure-up” way. Lucy is Dolores’s envious little sister (maybe it’s the 110 short stories that Dolores has written and not published?), and Sunshine (Sidonie Everet-Lee) is the voluptuously trampy friend. And the Famous Writer (Darren McCarthy), of course, who shows up late and sends what plot there is spinning forward, a weird fellow who recites a sex scene from one of his Romances and then cuddles up to an audience member (beware the middle aisle!).

Each arrives at the dinner with an odd little dance, and some even have singing roles, hilarious little songs, like Harvey’s “I Am Not a Spaz.” And each keeps that movement idea going for the rest of the show, more or less. The center of things is Dolores. She’s got an upper-South twang (the script suggests she’s from Cape Girardeau, Missouri), though less than Harvey, and a nervousness in her voice that makes her sound like a Olive Oyl at times. And she’s yearning — for the dinner party to go well, for her family to be a “real family”, for her writer to show up. But mostly for approval of a certain sort: She wants everyone to think that she’s smart. And of all the Discomfort Zone moments in the play (and there are several!), her pleading for her own intelligence is maybe the most powerful.

Sniffles. Remember her? She’s looking for family, too. She’s looking for approval and an appropriate vehicle for her art. She’s looking for love, of course. She’s trying to understand her place in the world. And like Dolores, it’s heartbreaking sometimes. But she also has a vision:

“Sure, a clown’s an underdog, but that didn’t make very clown a fool. It was an art, in my book, to take on the role of the oppressed. We spoke up for those without a voice. We were those without a voice — voluntarily relinquishing speech — and we illuminated the plight of the impoverished through every act.”

This is how I interpret what Imago “thinks,” too. Both Triffle and Mouawad’s work usually focuses on either the poor side of the tracks or the odd side of human personality, which they give a “voice,” however splintered it can be. And sometimes, I think (I haven’t done a survey), that gets interpreted as making fun of people who haven’t assembled comfortable, professional lives with comfortable upper-middle-class narratives to keep them going. That sentence is convoluted, but to turn it around: I don’t think Triffle in “The Dinner” is making fun of Dolores. Or Harvey. Or even John (and he’s patently ridiculous!). She’s getting at the lava-hot desire in everyone. We laugh, but we also recognize ourselves: I don’t want to be like Dolores, but sometimes I am.

One more leap: Neither Clowns nor Triffle give voice to the powerless, really. They point the way to our own voiceless “underground.” This is a (possibly deformed by me) formulation of Jacques Lacan: Art gives us an inkling of the part of us that operates outside our consciousness and generates so much of who we are, so much of what we “need,” so many of our fantasies and nightmares. Imago shows often say, “You are not in control.” Clowns often suggest, “This is what out of control looks like,” though this is an inexact metaphor because we don’t know what truly out-of-control looks like in the way Lacan talks about it.

So, can Sniffles get a job at Imago? Of course not! She’s a fictional character! But I can imagine Imago doing her Kafka bit in a “Metamorphosis” adaptation. Kafka isn’t Commedia in the direct way that, say, “The Office” is, with its stock characters that are cleverly manipulated. But that dark trip would be amazing, maybe even enlivened by the Imago creatures from the kids shows Frogs and Big Little Things with their fantastic costumes and more obvious clowning. Sniffles (her real name is Nita) would love to take part. She’s looking for a gig.