THEATER
The Art of Clowning in the Age of Smartphones:
Four Clowns presents Hamlet

While I sit in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles waiting for award-winning clown troupe Four Clowns’ production of Four Clowns present Hamlet to start, the music playing on the speakers sounds like it could be Yann Tiersen, strings and accordion and whimsy. The mood is jovial, and audience members chat, sip, and generally seem to enjoy themselves. Before the play begins, the Ghost (Joe DeSoto) emerges and starts to walk among us. He slouches as he walks up to several audience members and waves his fingers in a cynical gesture of enchantment and I’m instantly filled with glee and already laughing.

From the start of Four Clowns presents Hamlet, I felt in touch with a childlike part of myself, the part that finds physical comedy impossibly hilarious. Though I can’t remember being exposed to theater this excellently comedic as a young child, I can imagine children finding this Hamlet hilarious.

The play starts and ends with the childlike and very charming Horatio onstage, played by Connor Kelly-Eiding. When I sat down with some actors and the director Turner Munch after the show, Kelly-Eiding (Horatio) said that “with this type of work we are oftentimes tapping into a very young place in ourselves.” Her Horatio reminded me of a viral video I saw in which a tentative toddler dropped a piñata-smashing baton to embrace a Spider-Man piñata as big as he was rather than destroy it:

Horatio was like that, but with more of an edge –because her best friend was wronged and angry, she wielded swords – but that doesn’t negate the affection for everyone that seems to fill her.

To mention the production’s child-like quality is not to say that Four Clowns presents Hamlet lacks substance. This was a full and affecting adaptation, though some parts of the original play that did not fit seamlessly into this rendition were cut.

Kelly-Eiding, a company member since 2013, has also acted in Four Clown productions of various styles: original plays, both scripted and unscripted, as well as adaptations like this one. Her first play with Four Clowns, That Beautiful Laugh, was directed by Munch like Hamlet was, but the former was developed collaboratively from scratch. Kelly-Eiding said, “There was kind of an outline for what [Turner] wanted for the show in terms of scenes, but that was really much more building the characters from the ground up and then seeing how they fit together and interacted.”

Kelly-Eiding says that the process of working on Clown Hamlet had commonalities with both the scripted and unscripted clown plays she’s done with Four Clowns: with Hamlet, “we were working with the script that Turner was cutting, but also finding bits and the ways that the characters would interact with each other, and then filling in the scenes where we weren’t going to use the text.”

Scotty Farris as Polonius, Charlotte Chanler as Gertrude, and Corey Johnson as Claudius in Four Clowns presents Hamlet (Image © Zach Steel). 

Scotty Farris as Polonius, Charlotte Chanler as Gertrude, and Corey Johnson as Claudius in Four Clowns presents Hamlet (Image © Zach Steel). 

Chief among what was cut from Hamlet were the Fortinbras story line and the military shifting it represents, Munch said. Other aspects of the play were reimagined instead of cut altogether – they were embedded as references, which in their shortened form were humorous and still potent in terms of narrative and characterization. Polonius (Scotty Farris), for example, utters the line “to thine own self be true” several times as a non sequitur, which got laughs. Through repeating this one phrase, we see Polonius as an affable babbler, and because of his proximity to Claudius, this phrase which might otherwise be virtuous advice conveys the irony of the situation at hand, building further sympathy for Hamlet’s distress.

Elements like that one were facilitated by the public’s familiarity with Hamlet. Munch said, “You can get away with a lot more because it’s known to the audience. You can skip things and adjust things in fun ways, and so that made me want to do Hamlet because it is The Piece to many people.”

Andrew Eiden (Hamlet) said the audience on this night was a good one because they laughed a lot, and other cast members agreed. He said, “They liked the clown stuff, but they also liked our take on Shakespeare, which was cool.”

Through Four Clowns’ hybrid of Shakespeare and clowning, their adaptation of Hamlet achieves an enhanced comedic quality as well as the emotional fluency that is clowning’s bread and butter. Corey Johnson (Claudius) said, “we were able to heighten everything through clown so we can take what is there and what’s in the play and blow that out to the absurd and the extreme.”

In this mode, the clown is a vehicle for primal states – wailing, ranting, raging, plotting, succumbing – and by containing those in silliness, it allows the actors to cover wide and bumpy psychic terrain while leaving the audience feeling uplifted rather than exhausted. This includes the madness of Hamlet and Ophelia.

In Four Clowns presents Hamlet, these are the only two characters we see wearing the red nose, and it’s only when they are in the throes of madness, both incited by the deaths of their fathers. Ophelia’s madness is endearing – in grief, she reverts to a childlike state, her energy boundless. She rants and raves, but she does it so sweetly.

Hamlet’s madness is more dangerous, vengeful and angry. There’s an electric scene in which clown Hamlet cycles through rage and sorrow after the ghost of his father visited him and relayed the truth of his death. Hamlet repeats the word “lunacy” as he connects with the audience, and the audience in turns connects with his pain. The bind that Hamlet finds himself in – caught between life and death, madness and sense, power and truth – expresses existential questions. This scene is the clown counterpart to Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, which Eiden’s Hamlet also delivers well in this production.

Gertrude (Charlotte Chanler) delivers another famous line in this production, to Polonius: “more matter, less art.” Though this is really an impatient character’s request for Polonius to get to the damn point, this phrase can also operate on another level when it’s in the middle of a clown adaptation of Shakespeare. We can read it as a parody of the forces in art that would have us forsake absurdity and playfulness, and the forces in society that would have us forsake art altogether.

Gertrude’s “more matter, less art” hints at social problems that we now face as we see the arts embattled in schools and ever-more instances of the starving artist. Maybe it’s the zeitgeist, though there have surely been monarchs from time immemorial sneering, “more matter, less art.”

Clowning as an art form asserts: more art, less matter. The way that clowning honors humor, absurdity, and play leads a radical charge for the mysteries of art and why we need it, even as it shows us that these lighthearted elements are excellent vehicles for the most profound questions and emotions. There is truly a space for clowning in a world of corporate media and information overload. By relying on laughter, elemental emotions, and audience connection, clowning is a refreshing example of art for art’s sake.

I asked company members how they define clowning, which proved to be a hard question to answer. Munch for one said, “how do you define something that’s by definition supposed to be free play? How do you lock down what it should be when at its core it’s about curiosity and freedom? Because then it could be anything. We get away with a lot that way.”

During our conversation, Joe DeSoto (Ghost/Laertes) walked by, and he added: “clowning as we do it is not about makeup and nose and prodding people, it’s more about an inner fun and levity and inspiring the audience to play.” Dave Honigman (Rosencrantz) also walked by, and added, “Clown is where there’s no fourth wall. It’s audience and performer affecting each other continuously.”

Elizabeth Godley as Ophelia, Andre Eiden as Hamlet, and Corey Johnson as Claudius in Four Clowns presents Hamlet (Image © Zach Steel). 

Elizabeth Godley as Ophelia, Andre Eiden as Hamlet, and Corey Johnson as Claudius in Four Clowns presents Hamlet (Image © Zach Steel). 

Is clowning unique among art forms for its playfulness with the fourth wall? Munch said stand-up comedy, for one, has a similar relationship with the audience, as does Shakespeare itself: “Shakespeare does it with his soliloquies. The audience doesn’t affect the players, but the players are connecting with the audience.”

Honigman added, “And in the modern age, Periscope, because you’re interacting with the audience.” Munch described watching a Periscope user in South America: “literally they were just showing Patagonia, and I was like, Oh my God, show me this! Walk this way! Go to the right!” This unexpected turn toward experiential social media is not out of place in a conversation about clowning. Social media’s evolution toward participatory video might in fact be an effective metaphor for the enduring power of clowning in the age of smartphones. Periscope may be hot right now, but Shakespeare and clowns did it first.

Social media, with its little videos that feel like they were made just for us by friends and strangers, has a natural inclination toward comedy. Perhaps we first bought these cell phones so we could manage our lives more efficiently and recover posthaste from disruptions in our regularly scheduled days. But now, we invite friends and strangers to watch us do absurd and unexpected things in six seconds on Vine – and now, on Periscope, we walk around and see the world through others’ eyes. We break the fourth wall of our smartphones, as it were, when we use them to try and connect with each other. Somewhere in the world, a baby says something funny, and soon millions of people have seen it and shown it to their friends. We tag each other and say, “This is you.” We humans can’t help but seek connection and laughter.

And there’s humor to be found when we’re faced as Hamlet is with madness, death, conspiracy, and sorrow. To be or not to be: it’s a question to snarl, to kill for, to die for, yawn at, weep at, hug it out over. It’s a question well handled by clowns.

Four Clowns Presents  Hamlet runs September 18 – October 10, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://fourclowns.org/adults/hamlet/