While bowing after his performance in Why Are You Afraid of Clowns? Jimmy Phule thanked audience members for coming out, whether it was their first or fortieth Fringe show – though, he noted, “if this is your first Fringe show, what the fuck is wrong with you?” It was a good question. This is not a show for newcomers to Fringe, though it serves as a perfect encapsulation of the weirdest possibilities enabled by the festival.
Why Are You Afraid of Clowns? is a raunchy one hour lecture on the history of clown delivered by someone who is not, himself, a clown. Over the course of sixty minutes, Phule disembowels an audience member, examines the influence of clown teacher Philippe Gaulier, and strips in front of the crowd, all in the name of answering the title question. Eccentric, sloppy, and truly all over the place, it’s the sort of show that could only exist at Fringe – which is not necessarily an endorsement.
Phule attacks the performance with enthusiasm. He’s all in, bringing an impressive energy to the stage as a deranged clown named Leer. The character and the show, though, are too ill defined for Phule’s commitment to save them. This is not a clown performance, but rather an exploration of clowns as cultural symbols. There’s potential for something interesting here – when Phule hits on the sad innocence of a clown asking why his audience is afraid, or the gruff loneliness of a clown without a purpose, he’s almost reminiscent of The Simpsons’ iconic Krusty. The writing is adventurous, but ultimately too disorganized; Phule jumps from the history of clown performance to Stephen King’s It to the Insane Clown Posse without much thematically connecting the disparate threads – besides, you know, clowns.
This wouldn’t matter as much if more of the jokes landed, but the humour is hit and miss. Although, that’s in part due to the unreliable tech. Phule uses a slideshow to illustrate his history of clown lecture, with some funny jokes built into the slides’ text, but – at least when I saw the show – the transitions between slides are almost always too early or too late. The sound cues, too, are badly timed or inaudible. Rough tech is a part of the Fringe experience, but it seriously works against the show here.
Several of the jokes, such as a riff on whether balloons can give consent, are also straight-up offensive. Phule tries to pay tribute to the legacy of clown in Indigenous cultures, and attempts to point out problematic audience assumptions, but the segment is too flippant to be respectful. He mispronounces tribe names and then accuses the audience of being racist for a laugh – the whole thing feels more like a big joke than a thoughtful appreciation for Indigenous cultures. Phule’s delivery is also so aggressive that even the less offensive jokes are often more jarring than funny, which is probably part of the point. He’s aiming to make the audience uncomfortable, and succeeds – but to what end?
At the end of the show, Phule approaches a thesis about our fear of clowns (which I won’t reveal here) but it doesn’t feel like a natural or earned conclusion of the previous hour. The show makes a worthwhile attempt to grapple with some of clown’s main tenets – Leer is clearly meant to be an outsized, impulsive character, channeling the freedom taught by clown. But the most important rule in clown is one that Leer largely avoids: honesty. Even in a whole section about his dad and grandfather, Leer puts on a Freudian persona to avoid any earnest moments. The best joke in the show comes in the form of an offhand remark about Leer’s failed marriage; I laughed out loud at the startling reveal. And, maybe, therein lies the answer to the show’s question: we aren’t afraid of clowns because they’re inherently scary, but rather because – unlike us – clowns aren’t afraid of being real.
“WHO IT’S FOR”
For Fringe experts looking for one-man comedy that’s aggressive, unpredictable, and uncomfortable. Not for anyone who is actually afraid of clowns.
R’lyeh City Theatre Company presents “Why Are You Afraid of Clowns?”
at the 29th St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival
Performances: June 7 – June 15, 2019
Venue: 02 – Petit Campus
57 Prince-Arthur E., Montréal, H2X 1B4
Admission: $7-12 | Ages 18+
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