Posted by: trailerpilot | 06:26::2009

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal may have been an odd introduction to this company. Their reputation rests largely on two productions, a Frankenstein and a Macbeth, whose sources are first and foremost narratives, as well as on a Christmas show based on you-can-guess-what débuted in 2005 featuring the same composer and musical collaborator as Elephant‘s, John Fournier. Elephant, as a series of scenes inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s Man is Man (1926), is framed here as an evening of cabaret. Were it to embrace the form’s inherently episodic nature it would be an absurdist joy; each preposterous situation the five performers enact is indeed slick execution of a terribly funny idea. But, especially upon its close, Elephant reveals itself as wanting desperately to comprise a story, despite the number of angles from which its script attacks all attendant assumptions and conventions.

Molly Brennan as Madame Barker. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Molly Brennan as Madame Barker. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As the show’s mercurial, manic emcee, Molly Brennan is Madame Barker like Amy Poehler might play Sally Bowles after a couple of bong hits and too much sun. Like Elephant‘s relationship to narrative, her character is impossible to pin down, intelligently raunchy and quick to snap like all the best forebears of the type. The work’s first half is really a sequence of opportunities to let her splash around in the potential of Fournier’s songs — her delivery wrings most of the smart innuendo and unexpected poignancy out of his swinging melodies and Porteresque lyrics. I suspect she’ll get the most out of the show’s run — I’d gladly come back for one of the closing performances just to see how she’s settled in.

A quartet of mechanicals, though, swiftly hijack Brennan’s uncontested stardom and the show itself, infiltrating her lusty song-and-dance routine and applying a truly Brechtian spontaneity to the proceedings. Done up like the Thunderdome‘s stage crew, they begin by running the set’s elaborate jerry-rig of ropes and pulleys to Brennan’s orders but are swept up in a hostage crisis — audience riddled with crossfire — due to the rogue antics of Shank (Paul Kalina). Alliances and agendas shift in a blur of half-finished songs and acrobatics around the scaffold set — by about the 30-minute mark, entropic hell has broken loose and, wrapped in physical comedy and commendable stuntwork, the vignettes begin to suggest the profound mess of revolution.

The measured amplification of this chaos is the work of skilled performers and a sure directorial hand. Brennan changes costumes and the band counts intros long after their cues have disappeared — Elephant‘s 90-minute runtime is in many respects a single, grand crossfade between Weimar lounge act and urban warfare with guns made of hands. Adrian Danzig, Matt Hawkins and Jessica Hudson (all outstanding, for the record) are forced into cooperation to deal simultaneously with Kalina’s belligerent rampage and the coddling Brennan requires to go on with the show, putting on a few dance numbers (including the hilarious “I’m Sorry Mom”) and talking the audience down from a totally contrived panic.

Matt Hawkins, Jessica Hudson, Paul Kalina (in bag), Adrian Danzig and Molly Brennan. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Matt Hawkins, Jessica Hudson, Paul Kalina (in bag), Adrian Danzig and Molly Brennan. Photo by Stan Barouh.

In fact, here’s a little problem (not just) this show has: If we the audience aren’t freaking out about things not going according to plan — and at this point, what else can we expect? — how do you adhere to your characters’ worry that we need their help in pulling it all back together? There’s a lot of yelling in Elephant, much of it at the audience in the form of direction and explanation. It was a theater-savvy and full house Thursday, sure, but still I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen should this pretense simply be dropped. I suppose the fight for order, logic and justice still drives most of our daily actions, but it’s more difficult than it used to be to make accurate assumptions about how neatly an audience wants or expects anything to be concluded. Many of Fournier’s lyrics point to the weary acknowledgement of defeat: Lines like “I’ve stayed and prayed/when I should’ve run and sinned” and “truth is just a bank that gets looted all day long” point to what might be one of Brennan’s show-opening instructions to “imagine” this or that: Imagine it is just one ugly, murderous mess, with true cooperation only occurring in the face of a shared threat — what then?

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal runs at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre through July 11; tickets and more information are available here.

Adrian Danzig and Paul Kalina. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Adrian Danzig and Paul Kalina. Photo by Michael Brosilow

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