RETURN OF THE PI CLOWNS (2011) at the Berkshire Fringe Festival
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns
The Pi Clowns have performed at the Berkshire Fringe before – hence the title “The Return of the Pi Clowns” – but I have never had an opportunity to see them. I am a great admirer of physical theatre, which is how the Pi Clowns bill themselves. While all of the circus arts are theatrical, not all of them are theatre, but clowns are.
The modern day clown usually selects a character name, persona, costume and make-up for life. She or he then acts as that clown persona whether in a story-based skit or a skill-based set. The five Pi Clowns I saw identified themselves as Clown (Andrew P. Quick), Monster Strong (Jonathan Deline), Miz G (Leah C. Gardner), Juggler (Tyler Parks), and Bruce (Bruce Glaseroff) but each had a clear clown persona even though only Quick carried that moniker on stage.
I realized as I searched for photos and video to accompany this review, that there is usually a sixth Pi Clown, a second woman, and that their routines vary greatly from performance to performance. While they have some set pieces, they mix up the order and the routines themselves. I did not find any images that exactly matched what I saw, and so it is possible that they never do the same show twice. So what I will do here is tell you what I enjoyed and give you a flavor of the troupe’s energy and ethos.
“The Return of the Pi Clowns” was comprised of a series of skits and sets which established the clowns personae and demonstrated their considerable skills. While Parks is clearly the professional juggler of the group, all of the Pi Clowns juggle, and do so very well. Early in the show there was a big group juggle-fest, including their big moment where they form a human pyramid and fling Indian Clubs about with great abandon and precision.
Other pieces are more character driven. Quick is an aggressive, sneaky Clown with little patience for the foibles of his compatriots, especially Gardner, who, as the sole female in this show, was consistently silenced and ridiculed by Quick, until she finally demanded justice in an hilarious slo-mo fist fight with the five gentlemen which came towards the close of the show. She played a more cheerful, childlike clown who was forever getting into mischief.
Parks and Deline both sport astonishing handle-bar moustaches, although Deline’s hair is light in color I wasn’t aware of the extent of his lip-hair until I got up close to him after the show. The beefy Deline does a fascinating take on the archetype of the Circus Strongman which is both ferociously masculine and delightfully feminine. He performs feats of strength –and spoofs them, as in the bit where he places a charcoal briquette between his butt cheeks, squeezes hard, then removes a sparkling diamond (remember how Superman used to do that, only with his hands?) – but he also performs in a balletic pas de trios with Parks and Glaseroff, and does a solo belly dance. Parks appears a slight fellow, but he also lifts the other clowns high in the air during the more physical routines.
I got a huge kick out of Glaseroff’s non-persona persona, which is hard to describe but very funny to see. He is the clown who is always winking at the audience and drawing them in conspiratorially.
My favorite bit was a hobby horse race set to the William Tell overture, complete with a photo finish (an audience member was handed a disposable camera to do the honors.) I liked this piece for very personal reasons, but I also admired the clever way in which Quick, Deline, and Glaseroff mimicked great speed while virtually standing still. It is not just in the grand, death-defying feats that physical comedy can be awe inspiring.
I know there are people with Coulrophobia – an irrational fear of clowns – and I sympathize. I have an irrational fear of hypodermic needles and IVs and I know how hard it is to convince people of the “irrational” part. I see a needle and I panic – even if I see one on TV. All I have to do is hear the word “IV” and I am a wreck. Completely irrational fear – nothing I can do about it. I am not sure what aspect of clown-ness frightens people, and different people probably find different things scary, but if you are afraid of the heavy make-up generally associated with clowns, then you will be pleased to hear that most of the Pi Clowns don’t wear very much. Quick had on some white face, and he and Deline wore red noses. Nor do they wear giant shoes or baggy pants.
When I was a child I greatly disliked performers who invaded my personal space and tried to jolly me up. Many of them were literally inside costumes, like a mascot at a ballpark, and I hated them the most, but clowns were annoyingly pushy too. If that is what scares you, be warned that the Pi Clowns do occasionally enter the audience and touch people. One man was selected to go on stage and belly dance with Deline.
There was an enthusiastic intergenerational audience for the Pi Clowns, who appeared during all three weeks of the Fringe this year. I hope they come back again soon!