Darkness, Clowns and Apocalypse: An Evening at the Theater

As a small child, my biggest fear was darkness. Even in the most heated games of hide-and-go-seek, a small closet with the lights turned off, for me, was always just better off unexplored. Oddly enough, clowns fell in that same category of doubt and mistrust, their true selves always hidden underneath an insidious veneer of maquillage and gook. Then, of course, there was death, a leading cause of fear and anguish everywhere.

With that, I present to you, BrouHaHa, a production from the Washington D.C.-based Happenstance Theater Company, featuring a troupe of six ragtag clowns on a darkened stage as they wait for the end of the world.

Cue the tears, the wails and the shrieks, and the writhing over in pain because this show, sponsored by Bethlehem’s own Touchstone Theater, was fearsomely funny.

Column art located outside of Touchstone Theater. Photo Credit: Jason Pollack.

Welcome to the Show

The lighting was minimal, a single spotlight on the stage for most of the show only accented by a flash of color here and there. The set was gleaming from the animation and zest that the Happenstance actors left on that stage. By the time I walked out of the doors, I fully expected to see a shining sun; I forgot it was an 8:00 p.m. show.

Garbed in tattered Edwardian scraps, each actor donned their own modular costume to suggest unique hints of their personality: the leader of the group had a thick, undulating unibrow, the ditsy one had dotted red freckles, and the pack-mule had that rounded, red clown nose. Still, none seemed too scary or too dubious to not be trusted or even loved. I legitimately forgot these six actors were clowns; the very same thing I helplessly ran away from at Jack’s sixth birthday party.

“Was that it?” The cast would exclaim after a pause. “Is this it?” They’d murmur before a beat. Even after mocked explosions, quakes, and a very convincing flood bit, the world never seemed to end. Our clowns survived it all, and we—I’m speaking on behalf of the audience here—felt totally invested in their well-being! I forgot about my real life and my real worries as their looming fictional apocalypse became my primary concern.

These six were a tour-de-force. The show was a non-stop laugh-riot packed with rock ballads, extemporaneous wordplay, and a healthy dose of slapstick situated within a fragmented series of sketches and bits as the group waited for the world to end in a blaze, or a wash, or something else they were equally unprepared for.

Signing table. Photo Credit: Jason Pollack.

BrouHaHa was nearly a prop-less performance. In this vein, the most inventive and memorable part of the show was the heavy reliance on organic, in-house sound effects. The entire group was well-practiced in this challenging art, continually one-upping each other with a click, drip, bang, doing and (my favorite) the pfft, blargh and gack of the diarrhea and vomit sketch.

Music Director, Karen Hansen, who acted in the part of Wanda, or “Big Wanda,” as they called her ironically, was found usually lugging around a trumpet or accordion on her back, chiming in during the many songs scattered throughout the performance. She added texture to the experience, a nice complement to the pure imagination that most of the show relied on. Beyond Wanda’s instruments, all the show’s props were the product of this impressive wheel-house of noises the troupe imitated and brought to life.

There was one prop, however, that wasn’t always within their control: us. The audience essentially became actors in this production, ringing in upon invitation and coming together to form a bona fide part of the show’s story and flow.

One sketch stuck out in this regard, the “Apocalypse Café & Bar” bit, where anything and everything was on the menu. One actress paced the aisles welcoming us and then stopped near a few of us to take our order. As a member of the second row, and a viewer with a penchant for aisle seats, I was the first one called upon. “Tap water,” I said, with a tinge of conscious disappointment in my lack of creativity. My order was then prepared by another actor with a few chuckle-worthy sound effects. Subsequent requests for a “shot” of tequila, a bottle of “brandy,” and a glass of “pinot noir” were, respectively, prepared by the troupe with a shotgun, a branding iron, and, well, try to figure that last one out on your own… The actors’ reactions and on-the-spot alterations were impeccable and the crowd was on the floor laughing.

Going Beyond the Laughter

This show went beyond being just simple fun. During a time when we all seem to be scared of something popping out from just around the corner, shows like BrouHaHa are our panacea. The play isn’t totally devoid of gravitas either, a stigma cleared up in the talk-back session after the show. Artistic Co-Director, Sabrina Selma Mandell, said she was struck heavily by the Syrian refugee crisis as she watched clips of the news unfold—the refugees’ frayed clothing played into the show’s vagrant style of costuming.

In fact, the whole thrust behind the plot’s movement was this anticipatory search for something—for the end. The talk-back confirmed this sentiment when an audience member brought up the line sketch, a bit where the troupe formed a single-file line to nowhere, only to start questioning and fearing, “what it means to be the first in line,” anyway. Selma-Mandell said that the whole vision for the play was loosely based off of photos of long lines of immigrants coming to America, unsure of where they were going and what lay ahead but remained resolute, and especially hopeful, in their mission. The clowns of BrouHaHa fit this mold exactly.

Yet, even with powerful motifs at work behind the scenes, such serious matters seemed tangential, secondary to the raw entertainment value at the production’s face. Perhaps that’s the point, though. A privileging of the silly over serious, not an absolute dismissal of either, might help us all gain some clarity and perspective in what might be a long and arduous year.

In this way, clowns seem like just about the last thing you have to fear. They might get a bad rap for their artificiality or creepiness from clown to clown, but as Happenstance ensemble member, Alex Vernon, shared in our talk-back session: “I use clowns as a way to tap into a part of yourself and pull out something funny or embarrassing or surprising.” In that way, the clown character is simply a mere projection of the self, nothing to fear or run from, but a personality, a side of ourselves, we all should learn to embrace.

Exterior Sign at Touchstone Theater. Photo Credit: Jason Pollack.

A special shout-out has to go to Touchstone Theater. They fill a necessary niche in Bethlehem, uniting Lehigh and the surrounding community to provide a platform for actors, creators, and visionaries, from both near and far, in spreading their art for this rich, historic neighborhood. To check out their current projects visit them online, or stop by the theater and café on 4th Street!

Safe to say, my opinion on clowns has changed after all this. For the time being though, I’ll still opt to stay out of dark closets.

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