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Listening To His Inner Clown 

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Help! Help! I Know This Title Is Long, but Somebody's Trying to Kill Me!

Drew Richardson

at Live Bait Theater, through May 24

By Jenn Goddu

Clowns scare or amuse kids at birthday parties and cheer up the infirm at hospitals, right? So it's no surprise that Drew Richardson would call himself a "dramatic fool." No red nose. No mention of the C-word. Still, it's obvious that he's pushing the limits of contemporary clowning even as he takes on the venerable title of "fool," inevitably conjuring up a long line of clowns in theater, including Shakespeare's wise fools. But no cunning witticisms, puns, or bawdy humor are available to Richardson's character. He relies instead on physical humor, using his expressive furrowed brow and wonderfully nuanced bearing to invite us to join in a good laugh at his expense.

In Help! Help! I Know This Title Is Long, but Somebody's Trying to Kill Me! Richardson explicitly pays tribute to vaudeville, but his approach and physical prowess do credit to a much broader heritage. His physical fluidity mirrors Charlie Chaplin's or Buster Keaton's--although Richardson's entertaining walk/shuffle is closer to Richard Simmons or a step-aerobics instructor. His interactions with objects, such as a ukulele with a mind of its own, recall the lazzi of commedia dell'arte or pantomimists who continually struggle with the inanimate world.

The premise of Help! Help! is that Richardson, the "Sign-changer" in a variety show, is forced to fill in for the musician, juggler, magician, and puppeteer after they're murdered by a serial killer with a predilection for leaving behind his victims' severed hands. Rising to the challenge, the Sign-changer pays the ultimate homage to the sentiment that the show must go on. But he overcomes his initial stage fright only to become a spotlight hound, taking bows for his smallest feats and attempting to distract the audience when his impromptu performances don't come off.

Richardson speaks volumes using only a kazoo, sighs, and wordless exclamations. Whether the Sign-changer is afraid, looking for approval, sad, or drunk, the audience knows how he feels. The joy and pride he takes in carefully changing the signs--a brief act accompanied by a little dance step--establish a touching wish to do things right. Another wonderful moment expresses his frustration when matters don't go well: he balls up a piece of paper, then attempts to do the same with a flashlight.

The only weakness in this entertaining performance is that Richardson hasn't pursued his clowning opportunities far enough. Both the show's creator and its performer, he needs an outside eye not to rein him in but to encourage him to let loose more often. The sight gags, physical humor, and expressive reactions afforded by his overarching idea are priceless. But Richardson could have taken his clowning to an even higher level by further exploring the heritage he so obviously understands and appreciates, heightening the physical humor and his character's reactions to the bizarre situation.

The Sign-changer is the timid type. If he were performing with other clowns, he'd be the brunt of their jokes rather than the rabble-rousing prankster. And though Richardson is effectively alone onstage, he does have someone to play against--the unseen killer (represented late in the show by a disembodied voice). This threatening presence is the perfect authority figure for a clown to react to and occasionally rebel against. Unfortunately, Richardson doesn't play this up.

By not fully exploiting his character's feelings of fear, Richardson lets some of the show's opportunities for black humor languish--though not all of them. His oblivious complicity when the serial killer involves him in a trick employing a ladder and a noose and his turn to tequila for artificial courage are among the show's highlights. But the Sign-changer reacts to the first few severed hands left behind for him as if they were simply unexpected props with no sinister implications. When some menacing words written in red on cards interrupt the flow of his precious signs, he's surprisingly calm and controlled for a clown in this situation. The ominous voice should send him into paroxysms of fear, but again Richardson downplays his reaction.

Perhaps Richardson intends these lapses to show the difference between a dramatic fool and a clown, but such a low-key approach means that many comic opportunities are lost. Consider the ending, which takes "the enemy within" to its logical conclusion: the Sign-changer is attacked by his own hands in the form of maniacal shadow puppets. The battle for control between the hands and the body is ripe for an extended bout of physical humor but is unfortunately short-lived and therefore anticlimactic--Richardson puts more effort into the ukulele shtick at the beginning. Neatly wrapping up the narrative, the finale is heavy on props and gadgets--it involves a great deal of setup--but light on gags.

With such obvious comedic talents, why would Richardson do himself this injustice? Perhaps it all comes back to his reluctance to be identified with the C-word. The dramatic fool wouldn't rely on simple gags and physical humor alone. He must have a narrative and make sure his story reaches a conclusion. There's nothing wrong with that, but Richardson makes the ending too brief and tidy.

That's too bad, because the Sign-changer is endearingly funny--moving when he expresses his excitement with raised eyebrows and a glowing look and hilarious when he instructs the audience to cover their eyes while he cleans up a stack of severed hands. When Richardson gives his inner clown full freedom, fleshing out his comic ideas as he does in the ukulele bit, he's wonderful. When he doesn't allow himself that freedom, the results are entertaining but far from his potential.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Miles.

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