Watching Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Arsonists on Saturday night, I realized that I would be looking at clowns all weekend. The night before, I had revisited Leos Carax’s circuslike Holy Motors—a film constructed around Denis Lavant’s acrobatic and cartoonishly made-up lead performance—and the following afternoon I had plans to see Pierre Étaix play a clown in Yoyo at the Siskel Center. How refreshing it was to read Thomas Mann on the train between shows (I’m currently working my way through “Death in Venice” and Seven Other Stories) and get some much-needed seriousness in my life.
Then again, The Arsonists demonstrated how clowning could be serious business too. I learned from the program that the show’s director, Paris-based theater artist Victor Quezada-Perez, had made it his mission to “promote the work of artists through clowning” and to “combat totalitarianism through poetry and art.” That may sound highfalutin, but what could be further removed from totalitarian authority than a clown? By exaggerating his gestures and, by extension, the emotions behind them to the point of absurdity, a good clown can cut through the uniform seriousness around certain subjects and encourage us to think about them differently. The Arsonists, in which all the characters are portrayed as clowns, considers nothing less than the makeup of society in general. In his program notes the show’s dramaturge cites a key line of dialogue delivered by one of the homeless men who upsets the bourgeois household that takes him in: “If the thought of radical change scares you more than the thought of disaster, what can you do to stop the disaster?”