Nobodys Happy About the Beatings, but Attitudes Dont Change Overnightby C. Denby Swanson
Physical Plant’s Not Clown at Soho Rep
A bunch of us here in Texas have for the last six years been wildly embarrassed about our state’s exports: George. Enron. Anna Nicole. There are just some things that shouldn’t be let out of the yard.
Austin theater, however, is a whole ‘nother thang.
Kirk Lynn’s show Major Bang exploded this year at the Foundry. In January, Salvage Vanguard Theater broadcast their radio drama Intergalactic Nemesis on a New York stage. Now, Steve Moore and Carlos Treviño are bringing their new play Not Clown to Soho Rep.
These guys make us proud.
Treviño and Moore are co-artistic directors of Physical Plant Theater, a company known in Austin for startlingly original works for the stage. They mostly make things from scratch, but they have also thrown a new perspective on existing pieces. For instance, they produced Wallace Shawn’s The Fever on the top level of the Whole Foods parking lot. Seating was in our own cars. Ushers offered cold washcloths and lemonade. It was like being at an old-fashioned drive-in movie, except for the live performance part. A slight man in a suit and wire frame glasses. An overstuffed chair. A floor lamp’s curious pool of light. We watched the actor through our windshields and tuned in to a magical broadcast on our radios.
Not Clown is about clowns. It’s also about torture. And if that causes a rip in your brain, just wait. It’s about clowns who have been tortured. It’s about a troupe of clowns performing a play about torture. It’s about Linda, a girl who rebels against her father – an official State-sanctioned torturer of clowns – by producing a play about a troupe of clowns performing a play about torture in which clowns are tortured – sometimes by other clowns. There are lots of layers. Like layers of burned skin. There are lots of different sensations – sometimes it tickles. Sometimes it stings. Sometimes it has to be ripped off or it just won’t heal. The play is painful and gorgeous and really, really funny.
The development of the play started before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (and the appointment of Alberto Gonzales, another Texan, as Attorney General. Sigh.), but it speaks to that event and more. It is political in ways that go beyond the mere politics of the moment. Clowns, Moore says, held a disruptive role in their early history, and that’s what he wants to focus on with this play. Making clowns the focus of a play about torture disrupts our understanding of both and somehow makes them more relevant.
In fact, Not Clown started with “Night,” a Max Beckmann painting that Treviño saw as part of a traveling exhibition a few years ago in New York. Beckmann, a German expressionist who died in 1950, worked as a nurse in World War I, and fled persecution from the Nazis during World War II. “Night” portrays the torture of what might be a whole family, in what might be a small attic or basement. The leg of one victim turns painfully out, so that we see the dark sole of his foot near the bright red of a woman’s stockings. His work is both horrific and beautiful.
Horrific and beautiful. Not Clown takes enormous inspiration from this combination. Physical Plant consistently finds ways to make conflict not just in terms of the story itself but also in terms of our experience of story.
Here’s what Moore says that Linda, the narrator of the play, has recently written in response to interview questions. “Let’s start by facing the fact that the dismal state of things isn’t about a particular administration and its hateful policies. It’s not just about a few bad apples who lied or made bad choices. It’s also about us. Let’s admit that we have been witness to terrible things—but did nothing. Let’s admit that we have heard non-comical screaming in the night—but rolled over, fell asleep, and dreamed of happy things. How can this be? Are we so detached? Have we yet to believe that when we look into the face of our neighbor—white, black, brown, or greased—that there’s a real human being looking back at us, with feelings and desires as strange and delicate as our own?
“We’ve got a long way to go before what we say about equality and tolerance matches up with what we really think and feel and do. We all want to believe that conditions for clowns have improved – and that work of reconciliation is basically done: They can vote. They have their own elevators. Those wigs are legal. Nobody’s happy about the beatings, but attitudes don’t change overnight.”
We’re finally sending you guys something useful and exhilarating. After a successful 2004 production in Austin, Not Clown comes to Soho Rep. See ya’ll there.
Not Clown runs for 7 performances starting March 16 at Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., $15, all shows 7:30 PM. Tickets: smarttix.com, 212 868 4444. For more info visit Sohorep.org or Physicalplant.org.
About the Author
C. Denby Swanson is a Texas girl, a former Jerome & McKnight fellow, and an alumna of the Lark Theater, where her play The Death of a Cat was workshopped as part of Playwright Week 2005.