It’s been a weird few years perhaps exacerbated by the pure oddity of humans. Celebrities panicking to “Imagine”, ordinary people throwing in the society towel to make their own bread and grow their own vegetables, or the ritualised group screams of locked down communities; all evidence that the last few years have taken their toll. As such, comedians and clowns Alexander Richmond and Jeromaia Detto resurrect their studies of the human condition to ask, have we actually always been this way?
Part anthropological study, part cringe festival, the Marvellous Snake Boy imagines a human creature, raised by red-belly black snakes, brought to the stage to learn how to be a human through audience interaction. Starting with the art of standing and walking and progressing through words, hands, and karaoke, Snake Boy gains the semblance of skills to integrate him into the human world and maybe even find love.
Performer Alexander Richmond was fully committed to his performance from his opening of sliding towards the stage on the ground and between people’s legs before silently requesting an audience member dress him. The series of gags throughout the performance were often unexpected including encouraging audience members to randomly select an object from his backpack and explain its meaning. Simple enough for a pig squeak toy but harder for a magic wand-type object with the smiling poop emoji as its point. A particularly well-constructed punchline involved Snake Boy offering up snake lollies early on to ingratiate himself to the audience and learn a bit more vocabulary before, later, out of the blue, inquiring how his snake babies were doing and forcing the audience to admit they ate them. This juxtaposition between the world of the audience and the world of Snake Boy informed the majority of the show’s absurd humour.
What was most successful was Richmond’s characterisation of Snake Boy as an innocent, playful, curious boy with a facial expression that rapidly transitioned from eager grin to dead pan disdain. This demonstrated an adaptable control of the tone and emotional stakes of the production that kept it from becoming too irreverent or inconsequential. The premise of Snake Boy was silly, the structure was clever with unpredictable twists like discovering Snake Boy’s biological father in the audience, and the execution was accomplished with a performer both confident and flexible in his craft.
The following performance of this clowning double-bill was MUSH as performed by Jeromaia Detto. This work had less of an overarching structure than the Marvellous Snake Boy but incorporated a similar level of audience interaction to shape the storyline. Throughout the performance, Detto adopted a number of characters from a bishop with bubble gun instead of incense to a tradie trying out some of his tradie humour on an unsuspecting audience. Some of these scenes and characters were more successful than others like when an audience member selected an appliance from a catalogue for Detto to do an impression of. These scenes allowed Detto to show off his improvisational skills and the unique creativity in his physicality. Other scenes were less polished like the waiter who is controlled by audience applause, a funny and simple idea that became a bit muddled in execution. These more muddled characters were compounded by messy technical operation which could have sharpened the production and cleaned up unclear performances with more rehearsal.
But Detto was an engaging performer with imaginative techniques for endearing the audience and gaining their support. An early audience warm-up saw Detto as a conductor gathering together his musicians amongst the audience complete with trumpet players, bass players, and crashing cymbals played with mime and individual sound effects. Another highly successful scene also used the audience as the sound track to Detto’s solo flight, providing the sound of the engine, the propellor, and a jazzy radio number, too. Framing audience interaction through sound was an accessible choice with a child-like quality that gave the production an overall feeling of pure play.
However, Detto revealed his deliberate skill in artfully placed through-lines and call-backs that brought the disparate scenes and characters of MUSH together in a neat whole. For example, repeatedly an over-amorous Italian man swept through the audience, declaring his love for audience members and handing out beach balls as objects of affection. Later, this simple joke formed the basis for the heroic climax of a bin boy at the centre of a short play written by Detto and performed by audience members. This attention to detail meant very little of Detto’s show felt irrelevant or for the mere sake of a gag, it all fitted together and built towards a later payoff.
In many ways, clowning is about absurdity based in reality, drawing attention to the humorous in the everyday and amplifying it. In this double bill of the Marvellous Snake Boy and MUSH, Richmond and Detto used their keen sense of character and playfulness to engage their audiences in laughing at ourselves, a hard feat in these trying times. At the heart of both productions were talented, proficient performers with great control of the performer/audience dynamic that opened up a space for simple fun.
The Marvellous Snake Boy & MUSH were performed at the Chippo Hotel on June 28th
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