Trying to be king could well bring the house down

Shakespeare: In its raucous interpretation of `Macbeth,' 500 Clown gets the audience's help in ringing up mayhem.

March 21, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Adrian Danzig's face can say a lot, especially when he's got his mouth gaped so far open it might harbor bears. The cavernous mouth, the squinty eyes, the whole look is about what you'd expect from a man standing on stage with firecrackers exploding in his kilt.

Physical and emotional danger are things many performers try to bring to the stage or screen and fewer manage. The 500 Clown troupe would have you experience the imminence of catastrophe, things unraveling, characters in deepening toil and trouble.

Who, after all, can resist the spectacle of risk?

It seems natural, then, for this Chicago group to have found its way to Macbeth, Shakespeare's tale of ambition and mounting body count, which 500 Clown will interpret in its particular fashion at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown tomorrow and Saturday.

The troupe is also being featured tonight at 8 p.m. on MPT's ArtWorks This Week.

Danzig appears on stage in kilt and white shirt and who knows what else, along with Molly Brennan and Paul Kalina. 500 Clown is actually three clowns, plus assorted off-stage support. When all goes well, the group riffs on Macbeth much as a jazz saxophonist might improvise on a Cole Porter standard.

The puddling gore, the witches, incantations, obsessive hand-washing - one way or another it's all there, transformed, of course. There is the play's text and its subtext, part of which is the awareness of the many interpretations. The text assumes "authority," as Danzig puts it.

"I've been interested in authority," says Danzig, the troupe's producing director. "Where does anyone get the authority to interpret it?"

Presumptions of authority burst like so many water balloons in this performance, as if you were to sic three clowns on the very notion of theatrical interpretation. As Yeats wrote: "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold," and the superstitions that have for centuries dogged Macbeth unfold in this hour-long show in ways reminiscent of vaudeville.

Theater people avoid mentioning Macbeth by name - "the Scottish play," they'll usually say - as the tragedy has for centuries been associated with death, illness and injury. The Friendly Shakespeare reports that the boy playing Lady Macbeth died backstage during the first performance in 1606. Other mishaps have occurred since. One story has it that the play has been cursed because Shakespeare used actual witches' incantations in the text.

Whatever. The point is that the legend provides what renowned clowning instructor Philippe Gaulier would call the "game" in the performance.

"The `game' of Macbeth is the curse of Macbeth," says Danzig, who studied with Gaulier. "So `Let's make an atmosphere in which things can go wrong.' The other game is `I'd like to be king,' `I'd like to be a witch' ... I'd like to play that game with my friends."

When it works, says Danzig, the audience experiences a heightened sense of involvement in stage doings - if only out of alarm at what might happen next. It's a kind of high-wire act without the net.

The troupe's pursuit of audience connection is good news for cell-phone addicts, by the way. Note that there's no pre-show announcement to turn the bloody things off. Note also a certain risk if one does ring, because in this kind of performance, interruption is considered opportunity.

Danzig tells about a show in Chicago where a cell phone rang in the audience, and the owner was ordered to hand it over.

"Paul had to bite this guy's arm to get it away from him," says Danzig. Paul got the phone, tossed it to Danzig, who promptly popped it into his mouth like a cough drop.

"I have a pretty huge mouth," says Danzig.

The hapless phone owner "chased us all over the theater. ... It totally disrupted the show."

No problem there. The idea is a Macbeth that doesn't quite happen, a Macbeth buffeted by misfortune and ultimately doomed. An effort full of sound and fury, in other words, signifying failure.

500 Clown Macbeth

Where: Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St., Baltimore

When: tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Admission: $15, $10 for Creative Alliance members

Call: 410 276-1651

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