PROVO — Klouns is my new favorite theater company, and the best thing to happen to Utah arts in a while. Their premiere production of Icarus this weekend was a raging success and delighted sold-out crowds who laughed and smiled from beginning to end.
Hosted in the comfortable The Hive Collective in Provo, Klouns is an amateur group of young clowning enthusiasts. And boy did they enthuse. The entire completely original production shimmered with earnestness and heart. It featured five clowns, each with their own personality and style.
What’s a Klouns show like? Intriguing and delightful. None of the clowns speak, but their exaggerated body movements and facial expressions spoke louder than words. They do wear makeup (mostly understated) and are dressed like low-key hobos. The clowns were youthful and vibrant, most of them recent graduates of local university theater programs.
The show was more or less a series of unconnected skits, although there were a couple connecting threads woven in. One was the ancient fable of Icarus (played by Bailey King), the man who flew too close to the Sun. In Klouns’s production, the sun was represented by a golden balloon hidden away in a lockbox by its surly keeper (played by Skylar Lees). Icarus’s greatest desire was to release it for all to enjoy. Every time the box opened and the Sun jumped out, a feeling of awe permeated the theater. And the conclusion of the tread gave a great punctuation mark to the evening.
Among the cavalcade of other wonderful segments, two stood out high above all the rest. The first was “The Birth of Ascalaphus,”a one-clown number that featured Marguerite Morgan growing from an egg to toddler. The genius of this segment was immediately apparent as Morgan rolled onstage, end over end, wrapped up in a white sheet, landing perfectly center stage without any eyesight. What followed was one of the most impressive works of physical theater I have ever seen as she mimicked hatching and learning to walk: eyes squinting, movements shaky and awkward, slowly clowning her way out of her shell. Wonderful expression, fabulous physical movements. A small treasure of theater. I learned after the show that it was her audition piece. Bravo.
Another outstanding skit was “Argonauts On The Spot,” where all five clowns formed a marching centipede, which failed spectacularly again and again under the ruthless command of lead clown McKell Peterson. Instead of barking orders like a drill sergeant to keep her legs in line, however, Peterson vocalized through a kazoo, ingeniously flipping the situation on its ear. Although not a word was spoken, I knew exactly what she was saying as she dressed down her subordinates. The audience laughed riotously. It was one of the best bits of comedy I have seen in a long time.
Audience engagement was a big part of the show. The clowns were so masterful at using audience members they bought onstage that I thought they were plants. (I checked, and they were not.) Most audience skits included the other thread of the night, a completely nonsensical fixation on . . . watermelons. Dancing watermelons. Sexy watermelons (PG rated sexiness, I assure you). As poetic and inspiring as Icarus was, the watermelon gags were completely random—a delicious dichotomy.
The stage was impressively designed by Morgan and crafted from moving boxes and egg cartons, giving the production a raw, off-kilter vibe. Katie Ashton and Makayla Flint created the lighting design. I found the “blue” scenes at the beginning a little dark, but overall the lighting was solid. Make-up for the clowns was by Maddie Smith and the hobo-chic look of the costumes was furnished by founder Cleveland McKay Nicoll. And as a first-timer at the Hive, I noticed that the seats are ridiculously comfortable.
Icarus was created and directed by Becca Ashton, Peterson and Nicoll. And the level of craft, comedy chops and clowning ability they demonstrated in putting this show together was tremendous. Icarus was fresh, earnest, and left smiles pasted on my face. Making it as a new theater company is a tall order, but if the standing ovations and sold-out performances of this weekend are any indication, Klouns has staying power. And Utah is better for it.