THEATER REVIEW | Expecting the unexpected in The Clumsy Man

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“The arts are a place for misfit toys,” an actor told me recently. “If you contribute something, you’re accepted.” This may describe Hans Christian Andersen, 19th c. Danish author, poet, and visual artist, whose odd life is the subject of Open Eye Figure Theatre’s latest production, The Clumsy Man, created and directed by Michael Sommers, artist in residence. It’s bold and evocative, poignant and surreal, utterly original and exquisitely entertaining! You’ll be mulling it over for days.

Sommers’ work is never formulaic or shallow–his appetite for the innovative and elemental appears insatiable, plus he has the courage and conviction to probe the depths and the darkness that others may avoid, and the genius/skill to pull if off. He expands the boundaries of theater, even in the creative process: collaborative and intuitive. According to Richardson, “We didn’t know what we were making until we were making it.” One patron commented, “I always come to Open Eye with an open mind; I never know what to expect.”

Expect the unexpected in The Clumsy Man! No fairytale production, this, but, rather, an imagistic, highly symbolic exploration of Andersen’s troubled psyche, using the language of his writings, though sparingly, along with engaging movement/dance, puppetry, music, and projections. Because Sommers follows the dictum, “show don’t tell,” The Clumsy Man is mystifying, at times, dream-like and elusive. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant….The truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind.” Oblique, it can be.

Entering the theater, we’re immediately ushered into a somber 19th c. European setting. The box office inhabits an ornate cardboard house, and each patron is given a crown to wear (~The Emperor’s New Clothes? a symbol of our innate royalty?–will this be a scavenger hunt for meaning, we wonder). Haunting choral music sets the mood, for before us lies a body in black suit, over-sized stovepipe hat, and long pointed shoes, with a sign “I only appear to be dead.” Sure enough, a twitch here and there alerts us to the sign’s accuracy. (I learned later that the elderly Andersen placed such a sign on his nightstand, for fear of being buried alive.) Poor man!

It’s a dark beginning to the show–refreshments lighten the scene, and a light-hearted “I’m Hans Christian Andersen” (Disney) with projected animation:

“Now here’s a tale of a simple fool,
just glance at a page or two
You laugh “Ha Ha” but you blush a bit
For you realize while you’re reading it
That it’s also reading you.”

Also reading me? Um…, let’s see, light and dark, a tale of longing to be loved, to be intimate, to have one’s gifts appreciated and acknowledged? OK (blushing), I can relate to this rather archetypal trajectory. And the reader?

Meanwhile, the prostrate body has sprung to life, and Kimberly Richardson, as Andersen, declares, with deliberation: “Everything has gotten so fine and bright; it makes you feel ashamed and you don’t know why.” Enter ambiguity. Hans Christian then takes the stage and leads us–long-faced, long-nosed–on a walk through his inner life and struggles, the catalyst for his art, which, perhaps, provided him some solace.

“Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Joseph Campbell

“Where is everything I have longed for?” asks the tormented artist. “Release me from my prison; give me a human life, then punish me for my love of life.” In his loneliness and lack of confidence, Andersen pleads, “Be my friend….I really need it.” “Am I loved,” he wonders. And he craves physical intimacy: “It’s your body I want; I want you without any clothes on,” go the contemporary lyrics.

“What is to give light must endure burning.” Victor Frankl

Andersen reveals a pathos that’s heart-rending: “If you looked down to the bottom of my soul, you would understand fully the source of my longing and – pity me.” Meanwhile, his body contorts, wrestles, flies (as a swan), romances a coat, a dress, and walks a precarious line, unsteady as his life, an erratic balancing act. Clumsy? Andersen is immobilized as one shoe steps on the other–clumsy in body and soul.

“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Friedrich Nietzsche

The physical mirrors the emotional. Even the landscape is unsettled, as furniture darts here and there, shutters bang open and closed, wind blows, scattering feathers, smoke and mirrors, literally. The scene is animated further by singer Dan Dukich and Sommers (green devil) traversing the stage.

The artist acknowledges a lone vision, solitary calling: “I looked in, and saw what nobody else could see, or indeed ought to see; in fact, it is a bad world…. I have seen what no human being has the power of knowing.” Nevertheless, though rarely happy himself, Andersen maintained an inexorable belief in happiness: “I will gleam like the cloud, gleam in the sunshine of life.” Perhaps, he held out hope of being a swan, not an ugly duckling, someday flying away, beautiful, loved and accepted.

I came away pondering: what of my life was mirrored in The Clumsy Man? Maybe it’s a Rorschach, offering a window into our clumsiness, along with the hope that our creative engagement with our own stories will be redemptive. I know there’s a swan in my story somewhere….

Skip on over to Open Eye for The Clumsy Man, an experience not to be missed.