By Julia Clausen
Whatever expectations the audience might have when they sit down to the UCI Drama Department’s largest clowning production to date, “Clown Aliens” defies all of them.
The show begins with the narrator — a homeless man with a guitar — walking onstage and introducing the story of the clowns from Clown Planet, who blew up their planet from their own fighting and decided to fly to Earth because it had funk music. “Clowns love funk music,” says the narrator.
Developed from the plots of two separate clown shows created and directed by Chancellor’s Professor of Drama at UCI Eli Simon, also the author of “The Art of Clowning,” “Clown Aliens” is, at its heart, an immigration story as a group of ridiculous but endearing clowns struggle to fit in on Earth.
Assimilation is harder for some of the clowns more than others, as they naturally divide into two categories: “in” clowns and “out” clowns. The “in” clowns are talented and energetic, and they get their laughs from crazy stunts, wild dance moves and fighting for attention. However, the “out” clowns never seem to get anything right, which makes them even more loveable. One clown spends almost the entire show standing with his hands in his pockets, staring at the audience in fright, and another constantly takes off her pants.
This division, which led to their home planet being blown up, creates all their problems on Earth too.
“This show is about immigration, assimilation and persecution of outsiders,” said Simon. “All very important topics right now.”
Even with such serious messages, the production is so full of laughs, the audience is rolling on the floor by the end.
“Clown Aliens” demonstrates the best of physical comedy. The clowns exhibit a full range of hilarious failings, from falling over on a tricycle to mispronouncing turquoise as “tur-kwahz” to using a tape measure as a yoyo to killing each other in cute and elaborate ways.
However, what makes the show so strong is the detail put into each clown as a character. They are funny because each clown has uniquely dysfunctional personality, whether it be the crazy kid who thinks he’s Elvis to the bizarre girl who thinks she can be a great lady by constantly smoking and drinking (miming these actions, of course). There are little boy clowns who pretend to be dinosaurs and little girl clowns who pretend to be pop stars. The performers do so much more than just stunts for laughs; They tell a story by creating and expressing the essences of their extremely genuine characters.
Simon, who has been training clowns for over 20 years, explained these are not “the scary clowns or circus clowns or bozo clowns” that most people know of: Men in red wigs and enormous shoes falling on the ground for laughs.
“They are very deep and sensitive beings,” he said. In fact, according to Simon, the process of becoming and performing as a clown is a serious one, and it helps students develop as actors.
All the performers in “Clown Aliens” took Simon’s clowning class in previous quarters, explained UCI senior Katie Wegmann, so each student already has their clown persona. In his classes, Simon instructs actors to find their inner clown by going backstage, putting on the red plastic clown nose, making a face that represents how they are feeling, and then presenting that face to the rest of the class to see how they respond. Over time, the students develop a personality around the face, even giving their clowns names.
Wegmann’s clown is named Busy. She is a nine-year-old, overconfident “in” clown who believes everything she does is amazing. “Busy is very spunky; I love her,” said Wegmann.
According to Simon, the clowns are often an expression of the students’ inner children, so many of the clowns are stuck at the ages of young kids, some pretending to be older than they really are.
The youngest of the clowns is Baby Clown, the driving force of the narrative in many respects. When the two warring factions drove their Mother Clown away from the planet, it was Baby Clown’s determination to find her that began their fateful journey to Earth.
“Clown Aliens” is a story of love and loss and the dangers of war, all told from the perspectives of young and innocent clowns. In fact, it is because of that innocence that both the depth and the humor are so enjoyable. According to Wegmann, being a clown requires “just being present and reacting.”
It’s an expression of raw and wordless emotion through the combination of comedy and complete character transformation, both an important exercise for the actors and a true joy for the audience.
“We have a 3,000 ping pong ball drop, a live funk band and 20 clowns. What more could you want?” said Simon.
What more indeed.