Arts Listings

The Theater: Ten Red Hen Presents ‘Clown Bible’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday March 30, 2007

In the Beginning—of the Clown Bible, at least, according to Ten Red Hen at Willard Metalshop Theater—God Herself was inscribed in silhouette in a circle of light above the stage. She seemed to be cooking up something—though was that a music box being cranked over the pot, not a peppergrinder? Cut to past the seventh day or so, when a shy, polite Adam and Eve plucked red noses, not the usual Forbidden Fruit, from the boughs above, carelessly putting them on ... God cried out through a bullhorn, like a surly ringmaster, and the newly-minted clowns were afraid—and hid themselves. 

Such is the Genesis of a creation which, like its real-life model, is hopefully still a work-in-progress, worthy of more revelations, as the Ten Red Hen tribe literally renders scripture into an unauthorized but inspired version that is Fundamentally Clown. Though there’s no apparent reformer’s zeal to the artful slapstick of the exegesis, it’s not really so far from Erasmus of Rotterdam’s “Praise of Folly,” that humane screed of the Renaissance that put what mankind has made of religion into the mouth of the Biblical Fool, leaving it to foolish human beings to sort out that which is Caesar’s from that which is the Lord’s—or, for Erasmus, the Son of Man. 

What’s more, the plucky little Hens not only translate The Word into the flesh of physical comedy, but gather it up into a musical comedy revue. Alongside Erasmus, George M. Cohen, a progenitor of both the revue and burlesque melodrama, must be looking on in eternity with astonishment—and amusement.  

With a bright little orchestra (under the baton of composer Dave Malloy, who—doubling as Job—acts out his own Sorrows: his piano, then accordions, finally a pitchpipe taken from him) cooking away alongside the familiar tableaux of the recalcitrantly naughty generations of our race, the audience—or are we a flock, a congregation?—witnesses Laughing Sarah (Alexis Wong) inflated by God with a bicycle pump to give birth to the generations of the Israelite Clown Nation that wiggle and crawl forth; a tap-dancing, stammering Moses (Issabella Shields), working overtime to please God and curb the appetites of her people; a wide-eyed, grinning action hero of the Israelites (Will Howard, singing “I’m Samson; I’m crazy ... Get out of my way, so I can do my hair!”) vamped by a kitschy femme fatale, the Philistine Delilah (Shields again); a mute Saul (Ned Bauer) trying to act out the verses which finally condemn him, as recited over a Walkman, later soothed by David’s music (Andre Nigoghossian, strolling over from the orchestra with his guitar); Solomon (George Michael Chan) with a banjo, explaining in an intimate sing-a-long how he got wise, then asking in song: “Where’s my cubit stick?” to build a temple resembling a gazebo of milkcrates, lit up by Xmas tree lights, only to strip it for love of a not-so-kosher pole-worshipping Queen of Sheba (Kazumi Kusano) ... 

In one of the few truly apocryphal passages, a ticked-off Job takes a swing at the Lord, descended from shadowplay heaven to confront him, furiously face-to-face, thus somehow provoking the Incarnation: the jealous, vengeful, self-justifying “I Am That I Am” God sent sprawling into a creche scene as a bawling babe—both persons of godhead played with brilliant intensity, physical and vocal, by the divine Jane Chen. 

The ensemble itself is due full, heartfelt praise as well, as is Ten Red Hen founder Maya Gurantz, for a truly collaborative show that brings out each red-schnozzed player (including the other actor-musicians: Daniel Bruno, Sig Hafstrom and Conrad Seto) polyphonically, contributing to the unique style and flavor of this bravura piece that wends its own way through the desert of so much stale theatrical pacing--a veritable tabernacle of prat-fall praise to the greater glories of the Theater of the World (amen). 

Clown Bible doesn’t degrade scripture, but elevates the quietly sad or manically grinning countenance of the clown, as did the medieval Miracle Plays and strangely humorous decor of cathedrals, where sacred stories seem to get sent up on sacred occasions and in sacred places. Following that more modern, secular phenomenon, The Bible-As-Literature, Ten Red Hen has taken the next step in vaudevillizing these stories anew that have languished, relatively humorless, for centuries in the public domain. As a friend said when told of the play’s premise, “The Marx Bros. had to come from somewhere!” 

Ten Red Hen, as fishers of Man’s Folly, has ventured out, aboard the ship of fools, on the uncharted waters of White Humor. In contradistinction to more celebrated Black Humor, which overinflates the strange, the scary, the shocking to the breaking point of explosive laughter, its polar opposite (and complement) plays the humor of the ordinary off a spectacular rhetoric, spotlighting in bold onstage little, quirky details, until spasms of laughter are replaced by a smile of wonder at the ineffability of the ordinary. Its exemplars include Erasmus’ contemporary, Rabelais, and the idol of both from antiquity, Lucian; Tristram Shandy; Erik Satie (of whom poet Cesar Vallejo said, “He makes Music itself clown around!”) and Buster Keaton, whose Three Ages spoofed the scriptural cadences of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. 

Clown Bible may not be an eschatological event, but it is a theatrical one, of real magnitude. So I exhort you: follow that gold gummed star, which you should be placing on your calendar, to the Willard Metalshop, apt manger for the epiphany of The Son of Clown. 




Presented by Ten Red Hen at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through April 14 at Willard Middle School Metal Shop  

Theater, 2425 Stuart St. $15-$20.