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Minnesota Fringe Festival: Behind the Big Top
DESCRIPTION: A funny yet tragic play about an aging clown in the circus struggling to manage both his crumbling life and his insane co-workers.
So what we have here is essentially a workplace drama, mired in the same minutiae of every workplace since the beginning of time, with the twist that the employees are clowns. The underlying joke seems to be that, hey, they’re *supposed* to be presenting family-friendly entertainment, but offstage they actually, like, drink and swear! Which I suspect isn’t terribly startling or hilarious to anyone who has, y’know, worked in show business, though there was definitely a solid patch of people to my left who never found the gag tiresome.
(I’ve also worked with enough clowns over the years to find the errors in workplace minutiae increasingly annoying – the comedy, after all, emerges from the setting, and it’s not really clearly or consistently handled. Errors like the belief that it’s remotely plausible for Cirque du Soleil to be talent-scouting a crumbling, touring circus, or that being a birthday clown is somehow a logical stepping stone to touring, or the idea of a circus that refuses to travel unless it makes a certain amount of money. The whole point of touring is that there’s a limited audience pool! How the hell is this a viable economic model? These details really, truly matter in this kind of setting-driven comedy!)
The more I think about it, the more I think that my intense level of frustration and resistance to the show derives from the fact that I found its strokes to be much too broad for my tastes in this kind of tongue-in-cheek character drama. To pick one example among many, when the cuckold discovers that his fiancée has been cheating on him, his response is comically overwrought; he doesn’t truly embrace his vulnerability, the kind of sadness, hurt, and anger that result from that kind of betrayal. The actors and script have a tendency to reach too hard for the laugh, and it consequently isn’t all that funny.
Likewise, I found the script to be at times gratingly obvious. The brawl breaking down into a kind of three-ring slapstick was fine and clever, but the stage manager bursting in and accusing of them of being in a *circus* was – much, *much* too on-the nose. The characters have a tendency to describe their central motivations and conflicts to each other in monologues, rather than allowing them to be revealed through their decisions and actions.
I’m fond of circus history, and the setting’s clever, if a bit tired by this point. I’m simply at a bit of a loss as to what the writer was trying to express, beyond sadness and shame: contrasting that with clown makeup is amusing, but only for so long.
Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!