Clowns Plus Wrestlers

Cook County Theatre Department

Let’s begin with what I know for sure. The show is just under an hour long and is based on four texts: Turk Pipkin’s Be a Clown, Lou Banach’s The New Breed–Living Iowa Wrestling, Kenneth Koch’s One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays, and Robert Ainsley’s Bluff Your Way in Math. It’s called Clowns Plus Wrestlers, and there’s a little math thrown in, and a little bit of instruction for the would-be avant-garde. If you’re looking for a common thread, forget it. The texts were chosen randomly, and anyway, as I overheard from an audience member on the night I attended, “It’s better to walk into this place completely clueless.”

I must agree. The Cook County Theatre Department seems to revel in leveling our expectations, delivering the unexpected (and at times incoherent) in a rational tone of voice and with an always-intriguing visual style.

This ensemble-generated piece is part postmodern pastiche, part surrealist game; meticulously executed modern dance mixes easily with verbal improvisation, wordplay, and a little wrestling. If you’re too busy trying to figure out what it means, you might miss certain priceless exchanges. At one point the two wrestlers give center stage to a small band of roaming clowns. “What is more avant-garde?” asks one of the wrestlers. “A giraffe or an elephant?” His companion replies thoughtfully, “A giraffe is more avant-garde, but an elephant is more surreal.” The clowns cavort in self-consciously clownish fashion, the wrestlers offer a short, stern lecture on the importance of math in wrestling, and all five members of the ensemble deconstruct Hamlet’s famous soliloquy by delivering it rapid-fire and in bits and pieces.

Like most good surrealists, director Richard Maxwell and his ensemble are more interested in process than in meaning, diligently banging together four unrelated subjects and hoping for happy accidents. What emerges is indefinable but definitely alive, highly subjective, and oddly exciting. The audience is put in a position that, lamentably, rarely occurs in theater these days–not knowing what will happen next. (Don’t talk to me about improv. I know what’s going to happen when I go to see improv. Performers are going to try to be funny, and I’m going to squirm while they do.) In Clowns Plus Wrestlers a short, hilarious discussion about the Marx Brothers segues into a fiercely charged pantomime of the Little Red Riding Hood story. I’m not sure why they’re joined, but for the time being that particular conundrum superseded several more important questions in my life.

Look, ma, theater that is actually intriguing. Never lacking in personal vision, but leaving plenty of room for interpretation.

Driven by the live piano accompaniment of composer David Pavkovic, the ensemble–Chris Sullivan, Brian Mendes, Kate Gleason, Gary Wilmes, and Vicki Walden–are fascinating to watch, bringing to mind the way a dog or cat or any living animal (as opposed to actor) can be riveting onstage. Like animals, these people don’t seem aware that they’re supposed to be performing. They merely behave. There’s something a little dangerous about it.

Fable, presented last fall by this company, used many of the same techniques but went on too long, which gave the analytical part of the brain time to kick in and react with confused indignation. Frankly, one hour of this is about as much as anyone can take, particularly those of us with a passion for coherent text and storytelling. For those who demand the conventional, one hour might be too much. But I urge you to risk it for Clowns Plus Wrestlers.