Die Hanswurste

at Chicago Actors Ensemble, September 6 and 8-10


Around the Coyote Festival

Performance Network

at Centrum Hall, September 9

Traditionally clowns are tricksters, cousins to the coyote and the Norse god Loki–though you’d never know it in America, where kitschy clowns waddle around birthday parties, circus rings, and TV commercials, making balloon animals and hawking fast food. In other cultures, clowns play a sacred role. In Bali, for example, clowns perform in front of temples, acting out comic dramas that are as much a part of the Balinese spiritual life as the more serious religious rituals. But in our culture, to paraphrase Woody Allen, clowns sit at the kids’ table.

The four clowns who make up Die Hanswurste–Joel Jeske, Kevin Sherman, Bruce Green, and David Schmidt–are tricksters of the first order. Their show, Klown: Prick Us and We’ll Burst, is filled with sophisticated and finely executed physical comedy routines, winning laughs not with pratfalls but with their wry comments on human nature. Again and again these four create comic distortions of our worst excesses–vanity, greed, petty sadism, resentment. In one of the more Monty Python-esque gags, one clown happily shtupping a pumpkin has his, um, member cut off by another clown who’s jealous of his moaning pleasure. (Like the Pythons, these clowns will blithely spill gallons of blood for a laugh.)

The four Klown performers, playing distinct characters, maintain a strict hierarchy. Schmidt is the highest-status clown, a short, nasty, sadistic authority figure who leers when he isn’t fuming; in his fez and formal jacket, he looks more than a little like Peter Lorre. Green, who looks a little like Spike Jones in whiteface, is bossy in a more blue-collar way, with his sarcastic smirk and quick anger. In one routine after another, Green victimizes the clowns below him in status, but Schmidt’s upper-class clown beats up on him.

Below Green is Jeske’s tall, stylish, but sorrowful and clearly alcoholic clown: like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, he exudes lost elegance and a yearning for the dignity and respect he’ll never quite manage to attain. And at the bottom is Sherman’s grinning, wide-eyed character, the most childish and masochistic and dressed the most like a party clown. In a simple yet psychologically resonant routine, Sherman plays out this clown’s self-destructive tendencies: he attempts to break an egg into a bowl, but try as he might he can’t help but smash the egg on his forehead.

As in the golden age of silent comedies, a great deal of the fun is watching these four maneuvering their way through the strict class system they’ve set up. We cheer Jeske when he maintains his unruffled pose even as he’s beaten. And we giggle when Sherman is once again pushed for something he didn’t do.

What really makes Die Hanswurste remarkable, however, is how far they went to advance the idea that they’re a German troupe in the tradition of Weimar-era (and earlier) cabaret clowns. (In this they one-up the Upright Citizens Brigade–a merry band of hoaxers who once led an audience on a wild goose chase through Bucktown, then abandoned them three blocks from the theater.) In true trickster fashion Die Hanswurste spun a web of lies and half-truths around themselves so thick it was nearly impossible to tell in preshow publicity how much of what they said was true: Die Hanswurste are actually a group of Chicago-based comedians trained in improvisation whose real names are hidden at the end of long bios of the fictional German clowns they play. And they did in fact sell their bill of goods to the local media.

The Reader published a tongue-in-cheek piece on the Calendar page that gave the game away to any careful reader. But Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times took Die Hanswurste at their word, regurgitating in her review the group’s contention, first, that there is a great 20th-century tradition of German clowning and, second, that their show draws on that tradition. The Germans have been known for a lot of things in the 20th century–caustic George Grosz-style satire, brooding fiction and movies, new forms of totalitarianism, a decadent nihilism to end all nihilism. But clowning? According to a friend who teaches 20th-century German history, the German cabaret clowning tradition was effectively wiped out by the Nazis before the end of the 30s. And in a subsequent story, Weiss essentially reported that she–and the Chicago Actors Ensemble–had been fooled by the hoax.

That is Die Hanswurste’s larger societal joke, their meta-performance, if you will: just as their show both mocks and pays homage to German expressionist sensibilities, their publicity parodies the sort of overwrought, unskeptical material circulated to puff this year’s unpopular Chicago International Theatre Festival. And of course that’s what good tricksters are supposed to do–point out the weaknesses in the status quo and roar with laughter.

The Performance Network’s Impro was not as well thought out. Based on founding member and facilitator Frank Laughing Bear Sarvello’s theories about the importance of spontaneity, audience involvement, and “the integration, interrelation, and remembering of all–the audience, performers, the arts,” the show was about as loose and unplanned as any I’ve seen. In the first half, several dancers move spontaneously to music improvised by Sarvello (on keyboard) and Bob Marsh (on saxophone). Nothing is planned beforehand, and as Sarvello mentioned several times during this hour-long show, each performance is different.

In the second half “the walls come down,” to quote the program, and the audience is invited–actually, “forced” is a better word–to join the performers onstage. Like kindergarteners we were all handed a musical instrument (I got a xylophone), and then we all banged out random “tunes” while the performers played along (or, in the case of Kathleen Arrington, went backstage to have a soda). After about half an hour of this “play,” we applauded ourselves and got to go home.

There is something sweet about this throwback to 60s-style anarcho-populist art, though I may be influenced by my nostalgia for the spontaneous movements we were encouraged to make in the fifth grade by the hippie theater groups that visited my school. But those first encounters with performance and this show are like Jiffy Pop: much more fun to make than they are to consume.