All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
The monologue continues to break up into a person’s life span into seven ages from mewling and puking infant through school, soldier and scholar ages and finally “second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” This text is the basis for the performance devised 55-minute by Klouns Theatre Company that was playful and theatrical in ways that only live theatre can be. While reading and understanding the text is a useful exercise in grasping the dramatic structure of the performance, the show was so simply delightful that people of all ages and experiences could appreciate the joy this company took in telling a story without words. An Act of Seven Ages was a callback to the clowning and silent comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but with fresh eyes that elevated a Shakespearean text with a cynical throughline and macabre ending to a play that celebrates all of life’s ages. It is so rare to see a performance of this nature, because it would be so easy to do it poorly. Clowning takes intense focus and commitment, and Klouns Theatre Company’s performance of An Act of Seven Ages was worthy of the rich history of this style of acting.
The performance featured five actors, all clowns (or Klouns) without character names. The performers, Becca Ashton, Jordan Briggs, Marguerite Morgan, McKell Rae, and Abby Watts performed in fifteen vignettes that showed a person at various ages and were colorful, often comedic, snapshots into the human experience. One of the earliest sequences involved Morgan wrapped up in a sheet and giving a phenomenal performance of an infant. Having four of my own children, my heart was full seeing the Morgan reactions to lights and sound, the struggle to lift the head, and ultimately watching the audience’s triumphal cheer as she was able to stand on her own.
An Act of Seven Ages was a prime example of art reflecting life. While each moment seemed to take its sweet time, the show on the whole was relatively brief. It was interesting to watch bits playout over and over. In one scene a pair of actors, presumably representing a parent and child, toyed with the same bit of fishing with a marshmallow, only to have the child stealthily retrieve the marshmallow to eat. The hook would again be baited and the action would play again with subtle but captivating variations. In like manner, a sequence featuring all of the actors marching followed a simple line, and yet the Klouns were not marching to the desires of their leader, Rae. Becca Ashton kept a kazoo in her mouth and sounded for all the world like an old-timey cartoon. Wordlessly, she berated both the company and the audience as they sympathized with the actors. It was simple to understand the intent here, and that was a successful hallmark of the production.
The engagement with the audience was consistently enjoyable, and the audience generously returned interaction in kind. Some of the interactions were simple. For example, one sequence involved bubbles being blown on audience members. However, the schtick Rae used often was to guide the audience emotionally. While the opening sequences earned uproarious laughter from the supportive crowd, that at times continued when the mood was intended to be more somber. Rae sternly demonstrated the need for the audience to be sober, but did so with the same barking leadership from before that earned the audience’s affection and adherence to the story beats.
So much was made of so little as the performers drew on commedia dell’arte’s roots of playing to regular people. Just five LED pars were used to set the mood in the black box, but Katie Ashton’s design served the simplicity of the show. Becca Ashton’s makeup design used simple, partial-face clown makeup to exaggerate the actors expressive features. Nothing about the show was garish, and even a person who disliked clowns would not be put off by these enthralling callbacks to an earlier age of performance. The props and set consisted of a rope, a large frame, and perhaps a dozen or so other items that could be packed into a medium sized tote. The show’s lack of sparkle did nothing to dull the spectacle of seeing these players show the joy in small moments of life.
One of my barometers for evaluating a show is what I would say to my secondary students about it. My hope was to share this work with them, my own children, and so many others. While this may not be the preferred show of an audience who wants to sit passively and watch a musical dance before their eyes, seeing An Act of Seven Ages is more akin to watching a fascinating machine work. At times I could anticipate the action to come, and it was still delightful and enjoyable to watch. It’s a rare treat to see something this fun. Watching such generous give and take between playful actors and appreciative audience was good for the soul.