Joel Jeske and Grandma (Barry Lubin) cut up. Photo by Jim Moore
Well, after five years, I finally got my carcass over to see the Downtown Clown Revue. One might assume (and one would be wrong) that I would be a monthly habitue, clowns constituting one of the strongest pillars in the New Vaudeville edifice, rickety as that might be. But my deep, dirty secret is, as with any artistic discipline, I have no intrinsic love of clowns or clowning per se, only certain masters of the form — a short list of folks whom I praise in print or present on stage whenever I can. The reality is I have no particular affection for red noses, big shoes, face paint, or seltzer bottles. Comedy can be accomplished with or without those all-too-familiar accouterments. It is the laughter — not the props, the trappings or, frankly, a grab-bag of familiar and revered techniques — that is the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned.
Further, as I’ve already alienated some in the burlesque community by saying, as a vaudeville-lover I have a really hard time watching several of the same kind of act all in a row. I don’t want to see 10 burlesque dancers in succession, or 10 stand-up comedians, or 10 banjo players. Even if every one of them is brilliant, it is still too much of a good thing. Several clowns in a row would be no different, and this is probably why I haven’t hurried to see the Revue.
Here, it must be clarified though, that the Downtown Clown Revue is really an industry night. It’s not really designed for the general public. It much resembles Monday Night Magic. It exists so clowns can check out other clowns, and those other clowns can try out new material in front of their clown colleagues, and clown bookers and die-hard clown fans can keep on top of the latest in clowning, and, finally, so all the clowns can network with each other. It is a small, very close-knit clique. Supportive, insider laughter seeps through the auditorium like topical lubricant. For anyone who’s ever been to any kind of theatre school — the atmosphere is very much like that.
While Dixon Place was full on Monday night, there were familiar faces from every phase of my New York life, giving the evening a slightly hallucinatory quality. There was Matt Mitler, who I’d first seen in the late ‘8os when we performed on a bill together at the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art. There was Deborah Kaufman whom I first met in the mid ’90s when I worked at Big Apple Circus. Peter Strauss, one of the first acts I ever presented with my American Vaudeville Theatre at Todo Con Nada in 1996. Zero Boy and Hovey Burgess, whom I first met through the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus from around the same time. Parallel Exit’s Mark Lonergan — NYC Fringe 1998. Carol Lee Sirugo from a recent ex-girlfriend’s brilliant commedia play. And new friends like Jeff Seal, a frequent collaborator of Audrey Crabtree, Vaudevisuals photographer Jim Moore, and Amy Harlib, whom I presented in my show at Bowery Poetry Club only last week. Kind of like what the Palace audience must have been like!
Producer/ host Christopher Lueck is a glib, glad-handing presence in a tuxedo, full of bluster and good cheer. Monday’s performance (Show #51) consisted of a succession of original and commissioned works ranging for the most part from weak to interesting but not-comical. I won’t name names or otherwise violate my reason for being there by reviewing these first four acts. It was “work-in-progress” — one can and must respect that. It is no doubt useful to the clowns to have an audience to try out their new material on. The non-clown audience member, however, can only come to the conclusion that clowning is like trumpet playing. I don’t need to be present at the rehearsals.
Which bring us to our climax…the salvation of the evening arrived. If every Downtown Clown Revue features at least one performance of this caliber, it is more than worth attending regularly. The headliner was the incomparable Joel Jeske, a clown both skilled and inspired — an absolutely masterful performer. On this particular occasion we got an even better surprise. He ended up playing straight man to a disruptive audience member, Barry Lubin’s Grandma. It’s been my habit to dis the latter after trips to the BAC, but I never appreciated his artistry more than on this night. After seeing numerous performers struggle and thrash, it was illuminating to see someone utterly in control, and I understood for the first time in this context the meaning of the phrase “He makes it look easy”. For the most part he trotted out his usual bag of tricks, but the joyous part was his interplay with Jeske, a minimalist extraordinaire. The simple set up: Jeske sang some Christmas songs on the uke, constantly being interrupted by Grandma. That was all. And it was like experiencing a couple of great jazz musicians. Perfectly in the moment, perfectly in sync. They could have kept it up for hours and never bored me. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, the Who, and an old movie: often what we appreciate most in live performance is “the singer, not the song.”
For info on the next Downtown Clown Revue, go here. And for another take on the same evening by my beloved Countess, go here.