‘Halfwits’ Last Hurrah’ by The Four Clowns plays against routine floppy shoe and funny nose expectations of the form. It is, rather, a brisk, lighthearted hour of broad physical comedy and laughs designed for a festival audience and nicely played by a convivial cast.
Jamie Franta and Don Colliver’s storyline is loosely organized around cut-rate impresario Butterbeans Arbuckle (Colliver) and his carefully curated castoffs (the eponymous Halfwits) trying to keep their vaudeville going under external assaults. Arbuckle’s rival, The Real McCoy (Jolene Kim in a trouser role) left showbiz, made a killing in technology, and returns to engulf and devour. This could be an Inside Baseball smirk at the always beleaguered Los Angeles theatre community or just a point of departure for wacky hijinks and tragicomic mayhem – viewer’s choice.
The fourth wall in obliterated as soon as the audience filters in – these clowns can and will work with human props. Those who can roll with good-natured fun should come early and sit in the front rows. The premise is a show-within-a-show as the Halfwits strut their stuff against bad odds. A sturdy German brother and sister act (Jennifer Carroll, Dave Honigman) tumble, an operatic puppeteer (Charlotte Chanler) and her foil capably toss orff ‘O Fortuna’. Dissatisified with the slow progress of sabotage, McCoy and his henchmen (Tyler Bremer, Jamarr Love) resort to kidnapping the troupe including the stiltwalker (Hélène Udy), an unseen knife thrower, and even induce the burlesque dancer (Franta) to switch sides. Ego-driven Arbuckle resolves to finish the show himself with some help from his trusty, cuter-than-most-buttons sidekick Nimrod (Elizabeth Godley). Suffice it to say, things get dark shortly thereafter with an entirely unexpected character (Julia Davis) popping up to save what’s left of the day. Wayne Holland’s understated piano accompaniment neatly frames the carnage smartly lit and costumed by Donny Jackson and Elena Flores.
The Four Clowns formed in 2010 to perform at this same Festival and have since put down roots. They have a core company, tour nationally and internationally, and have assiduously cultivated an audience. It’s a large cast with a capable production team of designers and choreographers standing out among a large number of solo and small-cast shows. Director David Anis pushes the physically risky stuff as far as he responsibly can within the load-in, rehearsal, and strike times associated with shared spaces. The whole affair is reminiscent of the classic Jack Benny radio programs especially those where he feuds with Fred Allen. A sympathetic studio audience is essential in those cases to spackle over minor flubs and timing glitches. A packed house at the Lillian Theatre ate it up vigorously.
‘Last Hurrah’ is theatrical dessert that wisely doesn’t push a premise beyond its limits. In so doing, it simultaneously whets the appetite for productions of broader scope, length, and complexity from this group. The late, lamented Edge of the World Theatre Festival allowed such risk taking in the past and it appears the Hollywood Fringe is carrying on that good work. Physical theatre has a strong tradition in Los Angeles with resident and touring companies alike setting a high standard for movement, commedia, maskwork, and dance. We can look forward to seeing how The Four Clowns takes a place at this table.