What is bouffon?
A difficult question — one finds oneself worrying it like a cold sore or a bad tooth.
The novice is immediately misled by the similarity of the form’s name to “buffoon.” But that is a blind alley. “Bouffon” is to “buffoon” as a wet gremlin is to a dry one. To complicate matters, many bouffon practitioners are also clowns, and similarities exist between the two forms. The get-ups and behavior are grotesque; laughter is produced. But if these are clowns, they are cousins to Stephen King’s “Pennywise”, or the real-life John Wayne Gasey, that inveterate serial killer and sometime children’s birthday party entertainer. No one is jolly in bouffon. The carnation squirts acid; the joy buzzer releases a thousand volts. One laughs uproariously throughout, but one is constantly checking oneself: “Was that okay? No, that wasn’t okay. It goes against everything I’m supposed to think and feel as a civilized human being. If I laugh, it must be because I am possessed by devils”. Actually, one only starts to think those thoughts before being cut off by the next appalling remark or action onstage.
The best known of American bouffons is Red Bastard, a creation of Eric Davis, whom I first knew as “Mr. Mustard” when he played my little vaudeville show at the Bindlestiff Palace of Variety in Times Square six years ago. When I reviewed him as Red Bastard a few years later, I had this to say:
…a testament to truth in advertising. He’s nothing if not red, and definitely a bastard. [The Show] is almost entirely improvised, combining impish head-games with the audience with a rich vocabulary of gestures reminiscent of commedia dell’arte. He calls the style “bouffon”—whether anyone besides Red Bastard practices it is unknown to this reviewer. Dressed in a union suit full of what I imagine to be soccer balls, the performer resembles a tumorous tomato and comes across like the evil cousin of one of the Fruit of the Loom guys. This Red Bastard, too, seems a descendent of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen. Like a Wonderland character, he combines a harsh, school-teacherish authoritarianism with arbitrary (but comical) cruelty. Audience members are picked on, and then berated for doing the very thing he requested. Archly pacing the stage like Don Rickles in some demented dream sequence, he savors the audience’s uncertainty and embarrassment, enjoying the spectacle of the fucked-with almost as much as the audience does itself.
In subsequent conversations with Davis and his colleagues (about whom, more below), I have since learned that bouffon is indeed practiced by others – Davis himself learned it at the hands of teacher Sue Morrison. Bouffon is a form with deep Medieval roots. Like the Sacred Monsters it evokes, it has lain festering in the swamp just outside the village these many centuries. As with Freemasonry, one feels the modern-day practitioners are less part of an unbroken chain of initiates than merely inspired by the Carnivalesque rituals of the Dark Ages.
No matter. If a vampire sleeps for centuries, it is no less a vampire when it awakes. I can’t help thinking that the Prophet of bouffon’s resurrection must have been Antonin Artaud, with his talk of plague, all-consuming fire, alchemy, disorder and madness. The characters, all freaks from humanity’s fringes, reflexively deride, degrade, mock, and disrupt everything and everyone they see and touch – including themselves. At the same time, they take such pleasure, such relish in their actions, that it is impossible not to root for them, and even wish to live vicariously through them. They live like bogies in the sub-basements of our own psyches…beneath ego, beneath superego, and even beneath id. It is a performing style for Rabelais’ Gargantua, for Jarry’s Ubu, for Richard III, for the Grinch.
And, surprisingly enough, for the timeless American classic, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. The play’s three main characters are, after all, grotesques – a retarded cripple; an alcoholic homosexual (back when it was considered a mental illness); and their delusional and controlling mother. As directed by Davis, and played by the members of Ten Directions, these characters become subjected to something like an interpretive highjacking. At the top of their version, The Bouffon Glass Menajoree, they crawl out of a box like the evils of mankind from Pandora’s Jar. Aimee Leigh German plays Amanda as a 350 pound heifer, alternately gobbling a stick of butter and a banana she pulls out of her bra. Her monstrousness seems to stem from the fact that she doesn’t know what she’s turned into. Her attempts to be sexy or to play the suburban Midwestern mother both seem as horrifying and as unnatural as if they were being performed by the Shmoo. Lynn Berg plays Tom as a ballet-dancing hunchback – one with the spirit of a salesman or a game show host. This gives his relentless verbal cruelty an added thrust, a sort of unbearable ring of truth – a Mrs. Danvers who would laugh to see EVERYONE jump out the window. As Laura, Audrey Crabtree is the most disturbing of all – a sort of post-mortem suicide victim in a hospital johnny and adult diapers. It is Crabtree who goes farthest out on the psychological limb, playing head-games with the audience and the other characters, until we begin to wonder how much of a “performance” this is.
Indeed, something rather extraordinary seems afoot. For neither are German, Berg and Crabtree “playing” bouffon characters, nor are their bouffon creations playing the Williams characters. It would be more accurate to say that the performers have “summoned” these bouffons and are possessed by them, rather like the little girl in The Exorcist – and then the bouffons proceed to play with and blow off the Williams script.
Something metaphysical has happened. Yes, the nervous systems of three popular performers are providing facial expressions and movements we connect with the people who usually inhabit these bodies, and whom we’ve seen in other contexts, in other performances. But their souls have been replaced. Genies have been let out of bottles. As Ed Wood put it, “creeping things crawl out of the slime…”
While the production cleaves surprisingly strongly to the original William’s script, the main business at hand is the interaction with the audience. Some of this business is obvious (Crabtree picking and eating her own scabs) some of it so amazingly subtle and perverse you really need to have your antenna out (Berg passing out free beers and coming close to—but never giving a beer to—a cranky audience member). In every performance, an audience member is chosen to be “The Gentleman Caller” and he becomes a sort of stand-in for us, and we get to live through him, wishing we were truly among these magical creations as we all wish to be Max in Where the Wild Things Are.
The beauty of the theatre is that it is a safe space, and this is why it must always be as dangerous as possible. It is the one place where evil may be enacted and thus purged without harming a soul, because its transgressions are make-believe and symbolic. The high may be made low; the low may be made high. The ugly may be made beautiful; the beautiful ugly. Like death, it is the great leveler. Ultimately, I think a partial answer to the question “What is bouffon?” is that, whatever it is, it is not a noun, but a verb. Bouffon must be witnessed first hand.
The Bouffon Glass Menajoree will be at the Green Room, 45 Bleecker, NYC, through May 27.