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Clown's eye view

Doug Leonard


Jane Barber, Kristen Duffus, Chaplin’s Eye Jane Barber, Kristen Duffus, Chaplin’s Eye
photo Simon Stahn
Brisbane’s new clown ensemble, Chaplin’s Eye, fittingly made its debut as the first production in the recently dedicated Sue Benner Theatre, a well-deserved homage to Benner’s advocacy and support for independent theatre as CEO of Metro Arts since 1998. This was ‘pure’ clown, joyful, energetic, and wise. Brokered by Red Spoon’s Andrew Cory, it arrived fully fledged due to the sophisticated, mythopoeic vision of veteran clown and director, Ira Seidenstein, who beautifully choreographed the work in terms of colour and line. Seidenstein is passionate about communicating clown craft, and it showed. Traditionally, to study a craft is to study one’s own nature. Amongst his own “obscure complexity of influences”, Seidenstein alludes to working with Frank Theatre and, unusually, to his spiritual mentor, local Rabbi Levi Jaffe. Given the ‘centres of excellence’ or ‘centres of innovation’ set up for limited, short term goals, it was salutary to be reminded by the overarching metaphor of the piece that the stages through which a work must pass to achieve completion parallel human development where ‘ripeness is all’, and so sheds light on our own needs and possibilities. In this regard, Seidenstein’s program notes state that “Chaplin’s Eye in an ultra naïve guise is a parable about sharing existential and material space and personal objects.”

Beamingly clutching a small brown suitcase, Femmla (Kristen Duffus) innocently enters the bright sunlight of the sensual world and ingenuously invites the audience to participate in her attempts at positioning this sole prop on a bare stage. The action resembles changing household furniture, but Duffus finely indicates that, beneath Femmla’s emulation of the questionable ‘good taste’ of a home-decorator, an effervescent re-assembly and adjustment of self is in constant motion in relation to the changing sites of the object of desire. Femmla’s tentative coquettishness is the first flowering of a genuinely tender heart. After she departs, leaving the suitcase, the ultra feminine is troped by the attention-grabbing, determinedly lumpen and kleptomaniacal Zophtie (Jane Barber in thrall to a toe-tapping, banjo-plucking version of The Hills of Connemara). More crony than Crone, Barber wickedly succeeds in convulsively embodying uncontrollable natural forces, and celebrating wild desire. Zophtie is no softy either—or is she? She has no qualms about stealing the suitcase.

Femmla returns with a bigger green suitcase denoting different, burgeoning qualities. From this Zophtie appropriates stockings and stole by sleight of hand, and, in a scene reminiscent of a classic confrontation between Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, Femmla joyously discovers her aggression and bumps Zophtie off the case. Zophtie cries and cries. Innocence and Experience converge when Femmla consoles Zophtie with a rainbow umbrella. Cue for the entrance of Lanky (Andrew Cory). If Femmla is heart and Zophtie libido, Lanky crankily depicts the vagaries of the mind by adopting the Commedia fly lazzi as his stock in trade (the fly does not exist). In fact, he is a walking compendium of traditional Commedia character traits: Pantalone’s paranoia; Dottore’s illusions about himself; and Harlequin’s imagining objects that aren’t there. Cory blends these elements of his performance masterfully. By contrast to the women, Lanky is always suspicious and controlling in relationship to objects, but is easily controlled in turn by Zophtie who literally mesmerises him with her umbrella.

Clever lighting design, recalling the opening sequence of Les Enfants du Paradis, signals the appearance of Pirouette (Kayt Douglas). The shift is from the quotidian sensual realm to the sensuous, sublunar regions ruled by Dionysus and the imagination. As if blown about in high atmospherics, Douglas introduces a delectably light tone which helps reconfigure the overall spatial composition and brightens the pace. Everything becomes possible, and the descent of Charlie Chaplin (Ira Seidenstein) from the gods is just such an epiphany. This advent is a bitter-sweet return of the proletarian Everyman that Chaplin once represented in the iconography of the arts. In Seidenstein’s hands, it is uncanny. After a life time of clowning, he provides a meticulous metronome to the ensuing slapstick choreography which becomes more intricate and labyrinthine, more democratic than antagonistic, as the clown characters (who somehow maintain their individual poise and rhythm) dissolve into shamanic ‘bags of bones’ and reconstitute themselves in a continuous recycling of the death and resurrection game. Charlie presents Femmla with a flower, and the mechanism begins to wind down. There is a moment of psychic (or social) integration when the rest of the cast proffer flowers from offstage, then a series of dissolving group snapshots with the double photographic message: ‘I am/was here.’

It is not disparaging to call this work light. It is full of light.


Chaplin’s Eye, producer/performer Andrew Cory, devisor/director/performer Ira Seidenstein, performers Jane Barber, Kayt Douglas, Kristen Duffus, lighting David Lee, costume design Tiffany Beckwith Skinner; Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts, Nov 24-Dec 3, 2005
*Chaplin’s Eye will appear in the 2006 Adelaide Fringe Festival

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 31

© Doug Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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