Stilted clowns

A Thousand Clowns

Downtown Oroville on a Saturday night is, well, quiet.

Although very tempted by a hand-drawn sign advertising “Live Rap” (with an arrow pointing the way), I dutifully proceed to the Birdcage Theatre’s final show of its 19th season, A Thousand Clowns.

It’s the story of unemployed Murray Burns (played with appropriate gusto by Mark Alan Johnston), an uncompromising artist whose lifestyle is putting him in danger of losing custody of the nephew abandoned to him by his sister.

This kind of comedy long ago went out of style. Like television programs of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the pacing is stilted and unnatural. As a result, communication is a problem, between the actors on stage and between the actors and the audience.

The acting is fine, especially the natural and enthusiastic portrayal of the young Nick Burns by high-school freshman Wade Gess, but the presentation lacks direction. Key points of the narrative are muddy (the essay that Nick writes in school about unemployment is the impetus for all the drama that ensues, and yet it’s mentioned almost in passing), and useless scenes of snappy wisecracking banter mixed with nonconformist pontification really drag on.

While Murray’s worldview offers some inspiring dialogue—"You’ve gotta own your own days and name ’em! Each one of ’em, every one of ’em! Or else the years go right by, and none of them belong to you"—it’s the clowning around that most of the audience really got a kick out of.

Remember, I wanted to go to a rap show.