Monday, July 16, 2012

Fringe 2012 Review: Of Mice and Morro and Jasp

Morro (Heather Anne Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee), two clowns down on their luck, are looking for their next audience participant.

“Where’s our strongman?”

A cell phone rings in the audience. It’s not a sound cue. (I think.)

“Looks like you’ve nominated yourself, sir,” declares the bossy Jasp. The audience roars in approval.

Lesson One, to everyone: never leave your phone on in a Fringe show, particularly one requiring periodic victims; uh, audience participants.

Morro and Jasp have a long and popular history in Toronto theatre, but I had never caught their performances until now; I was convinced I was uninterested in clowns. I’ll definitely have them high on my list from now on, however; they manage to be funny and moving, with a healthy dose of social commentary behind the red noses.

Playing on the current economic crisis (and its impact on the arts), the sweet but dim Morro and the mastermind, exasperated Jasp, plot to give the audience what they believe is popular these days: something deep, a tragedy, where “tragical” things happen, according to Morro. They are performing a riff on Of Mice and Men, with the two easily sliding into the roles of leader George and kind but “doesn’t know his own strength” Lennie, though they keep their own names and identities. (It’s interesting to see these roles played by women, particularly in the scene where Lennie/Morro encounters the woman he’s not supposed to interact with; for better or for worse as a social comment, it removes a layer of menace. Also removing a layer of menace is that the woman is played by a blow-up doll with a beard, but I digress.) Morro, in what is probably best for her sake, hasn’t read past the book’s first chapter. (Jasp is annoyed about this, but I’m surprised Jasp wasn’t actually trying to keep the ending from Morro, all things considered.)

In a wonderful twist on the Depression-era novella, the “demeaning” jobs the two are forced to take are those of sad, traditional birthday party or circus clowns with squeaky shoes (Morro, disbelievingly looking at a stupid costume piece, realizes “That’s the joke?!”), rather than the more sophisticated performers they would like to be, interpretive dancing to minimalist music.  It’s a wonderful comment on several things; not only does it puncture our expectations of clowns, and reminds us of the jobs artists must take to pay the bills, but in a larger sense, it’s about the jobs we’re all having to take in this current economic climate that aren’t what we want to do, or where we want to be. In its own way, it’s a perfect metaphor for the new EI rules going into effect, a vicious spiral where (in a very simplified description), after a certain number of fruitless weeks, the applicant has to take a job paying 70% of their last paycheque, no matter what that job is, and then this new job becomes their “last job” and their “field” for EI purposes, so next time it’s 70% of and jobs related to that last-minute job, no matter what it is.

Morro and Jasp don’t enjoy being circus clowns, but Jasp is mostly interested in making sure Morro stays out of trouble, something the latter is patently incapable of doing, whether it involves carrying dead rats around, eating ketchup packets with relish (rimshot), participating in a truly surreal sing-along, or inadvertent murder from loving too much.

Props and set are effectively low-budget, from a washtub pond to the robo-puppy, to the malaprops on the hand-drawn title cards, to even using the audience as set. Audience participation, though always a crapshoot, is coached and handled well, and makes for some entertaining interludes.

The simple story forming Of Mice and Men works well as a framework for the pair to riff on, and it really does lend the story a tragic air. This isn’t just limited to when Jasp does to Morro what George does to Lennie, but is felt even more keenly when Morro’s finally experiences disillusionment with the dreams and promises that are never going to become real. It doesn’t matter how silly the set-up has been; everyone in the audience can relate to this feeling. But there is one final piece of audience participation left, and, without revealing the ending, it brings a smile to everyone’s face and a tear to this reviewer’s eye. With performers like Morro and Jasp around, maybe life isn’t so tragical, after all.


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