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'Clown Bar' [Review]

Szymkowicz’s absurdist play takes you into the world of the underground clown crime ring.

Clown Bar is a crime noir drama... about the underground clown crime ring... with live music. If that sounds like an odd mash-up to you, you haven't yet experienced the brilliant comedic mind of seasoned playwright Adam Szymkowicz. After a critically acclaimed and extended run in 2013, Pipeline Theatre Company is presenting an encore engagement this summer at The Box in downtown Manhattan. These polished performers bring an energy and an earnestness to the world of the clown that is vital to bringing the play to life.

Bringing Crime and Comedy to Life

Upon entering the theater, you are provided with your very own clown nose, directed to a booth or table in the bar and given the option to order comedic food and drinks such as the provocatively titled cocktail, "Sex with a Clown." Pre-show festivities include musical numbers by the bar's singer, Dusty (Salty Brine) and pianist Thumbs (Ian Axness) as well as what you might consider standard clown acts involving balloons and "bad" jokes.

What makes these clowns special, however, isn't their (at times quite mediocre) clowning ability, but the world that lies beneath the act. Clown Bar is in many ways a standard crime noir tale, telling the story of a detective who comes to the bar to investigate the murder of his baby brother. These tropes--the suave detective, the little brother who has gotten on the wrong path, the femme fatale, the gun-toting henchmen and the terrifying crime boss--make the bizarre world of the play familiar, and the mystery of who killed Timmy utterly engaging.

This is a play that challenges every taboo, from extreme violence and drug abuse to stage performers who cannot afford to live without resorting to prostitution. That almost every member of the cast happens to have on a wig and face paint only draws you further into the world, where loyalty is everything and no one can ever really escape.

The Acting Talents

Clown Bar could not stand without some superb talents on the part of the actors, and this cast does not disappoint on that front. The early part of the show is dominated by the multi-talented Petunia (Jessica Frey), whose youthful energy makes her a star performer. This show has some great roles for women, from the homicidal Popo (usually played by Cyndi Perczek, tonight by Iris McQuillan-Grace) in her bright blue pigtails to the seductress Blinky (Claire Rothrock). Yet it is the tormented identity of clown-turned-cop Happy (Shane Zeigler) that drives the show, as we watch him struggle not to fall back into the dangerous clown world that took away his brother.

Theater in a Bar

In this multi-level, dimly lit bar, audience members will never be able to see all of the action of the play swirling around them. The unfortunately cramped setup does, however, make you privy to particular close-up moments with the cast, whether that is the opportunity to help an actress undress or the facial expressions of the pianist mime who watches the action from the security of his keyboard. Lighting allows the actors to blend easily in and out of flashbacks, where Happy recalls moments of his earlier life with his little brother. The gorgeous costuming by Meghan Gaber--from the female clowns' corsets and fishnets to the flawless representation of a crime noir detective--likewise makes it easy to remain within their world.

Some of Dusty and Thumbs's songs (written by Adam Overett) were forgettable, while others lit up the performance, such as "Clown Love," an ode to Happy embracing his inner clown identity and his love, Blinky, and the strip-tease number that first introduces her. What is most entertaining about the play, however, isn't the music or the jokes but overwhelming absurdity of it all. In a world where the guns shoot out glitter and a young boy's greatest aspiration is to be funny enough to rejoin the circus that fired him, one detective must choose between happiness with the woman he loves and revenge for the brother he lost. It is both completely ridiculous and utterly heart-wrenching, and it is that duality that makes Clown Bar a show worth seeing.

Clown Bar plays Saturdays at 7:30pm at The Box through August 2. Note: the show contains extreme language, depictions of gun violence, partial nudity, smoking... and clowns.

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