Adapting doesn’t quite seem the right description for what 500 Clown, a Chicago company of accomplished physical comedians, does with the classic tales of “Frankenstein” and “Macbeth” in these two short, clever shows now running in repertory on Steppenwolf’s second stage. The three clowns – two men and a woman – barely worry about narrative. Instead, they create extended acrobatic comedy routines that impressively amuse on a near-childlike level of goofy fun, and yet simultaneously operate as metaphorical riffs on the source story’s themes.
In “500 Clown Frankenstein,” which will travel to Off Broadway’s P.S. 122 in December, the clowns find it awfully hard even to start their story, as they struggle mightily to set the scene. Their battle with the lab table – a heavy, flappy work of wood and hinges that manages to fall on and over them in careful clownish choreography – clearly comes across as a physical expression of the struggle of all artistic creation.
In the even more effective “500 Clown Macbeth,” the bulk of the show takes place on a rickety metal scaffold, as the comically ambitious clowns try to out-do each other to reach for the crown that hangs above it. By the time they’re done, the platform stage is literally collapsing in climactic moments of what seems like actual peril.
By interpreting classics with knowing abstraction, 500 Clown has a uniqueness that will serve the company well as they continue to tour and build what’s likely to be a limited but loyal fan base. (The fact that their next show will be a take on Brecht’s “A Man’s a Man” demonstrates that they’re not exactly pandering to group sales.) They have a certain comic intellectualism that manages to be smart without being pretentious, allowing them to occupy the pretty rare space of easily accessible avant-garde.
The performers each have a clown persona they can take to extremes. Paul Kalina is Shank, the stoogiest of the trio, who plays cluelessness without the stupidity. As the somewhat proper Kevin, Molly Brennan (the gender naming is purposefully incorrect) excels at the inevitable frustrations of the energetic perfectionist. And company chief Adrian Danzig is the histrionic Bruce, who, much like Shakespeare’s Bottom, frequently wants to speak or repeat everyone else’s lines. But they don’t over-do their characterizations either. They work hard at being unforced – the kind of performers who can manufacture spontaneity.
They intersperse their robust, carefully controlled physical antics with more improvisatory bits that feel loose and organic but still stay focused on the necessary theme. In “Frankenstein,” for example, some of the funniest moments come from Shank’s recognition that he’s supposed to play the monster, but he has no idea what to do. The others force Shank into the audience, trying to find people to hit him. When Shank gets fed up, he starts tearing up the copy of Mary Shelley’s novel that Kevin has been reading from, his own revolution against that which has created him.
It’s silly, and it’s smart.