Foucauldian theory, existential angst, a postmodern meditation on identity and origin -- not the stuff you'd expect to find in a vaudevillian clown act.
Unless that clown act is "all wear bowlers," now playing at La Jolla Playhouse. Created by and starring Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford, the physically rigorous screwball performance mixes the predictable slapstick, pratfalls and sleight-of-hand trickery of vaudeville with unexpected audience participation, existential weightiness and a dark sense of foreboding.
The result: 75 uninterrupted minutes of discomforting bliss.
Sobelle and Lyford play two silent film tramps -- in bowlers, naturally -- who pop off the screen and into the Playhouse's Potiker Theatre. With a bit of film magic by Michael Glass and some impeccable timing, the two clowns step in and out of the screen, laughing to themselves at the odd-looking people "out there." But when the film reel disintegrates, the two find themselves stuck in this strange new world.
Not only that, but it turns out that the chumps they were making fun of can actually see them. This hilarious reversal about who's watching whom is played out to maximum effect when they climb over patrons, detach a pair of theater seats, drag the chairs on stage and train their focus on the audience.
"I don't get it," says Lyford's character, Wyatt.
"It's avante-garde," replies Sobelle's Earnest, poking fun at the show's own plotless absurdity.
The characters don't say much. They mostly intone guttural groans, squeaks and incomprehensible noises, which makes the unnecessary expletives surprising -- better leave the kids at home.
Earnest, the more direct and aggressive one, and Wyatt, the shier second-banana type, spend much of the show desperately trying to escape the theater. They even attempt to dig their way through the ceiling. Each endeavor is met with ear-cracking sirens, brick walls, blaring music and crashing lights. But the "fourth wall" of theater is completely demolished as the friends realize they are the show, and are compelled to perform.
The show includes the usual vaudevillian shtick -- a tit for tat spit-take bit, a ladder balancing act, pratfalls and eggs that magically appear from Lyford's mouth. Some of these acts we've seen too often to have much effect, and some bits just go on longer than they should.
But there's no denying that Lyford, an MFA graduate of UCSD's theater program, and Sobelle, a graduate of the acclaimed Jacques Lecoq school of physical theater in Paris, have great chemistry, along with impressive timing and physicality. The duo pays homage to such legendary physical comedians as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.
But "bowlers" isn't all slapstick buffoonery. It also pays homage to more highbrow works such as Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," in which two men pass the time as they wait in vain for the God-like Godot to arrive. The title "all wear bowlers" is a stage direction from Beckett's play, indicating that all characters should wear this style of hat.
In one of the show's most inspired and skillful sequences, Sobelle and Lyford entangle their arms and legs to bring to life a third, invisible, bowler-wearing character sitting between them. It's a magic trick unto itself: You'll spend half the time trying to figure it all out and the other half just enjoying the illusion. Add a green apple and you've got Magritte's anonymous Everyman -- a fitting image and symbol for a show tangentially about the joint identity of any two people who rely on each other.
And then things get progressively wackier, and darker. A melancholy ventriloquist act takes a turn for the hilariously demonic when the dead puppet comes to life and takes over the show, finally proving to both that neither ventriloquist nor dummy can go it alone.
Yeah, you just have to see it.
Lyford and Sobelle have smartly layered the show with such postmodern sensibilities without allowing them to overshadow the comedy. The highly entertaining "bowlers" is a deft blend of tragedy and comedy, classic slapstick and contemporary multimedia clowning. Moreover, the show illustrates the unique offerings of live theater -- you just can't get this kind of performance in television or film.
PROGRAM: "all wear bowlers"
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Dates: Through Sept. 3
Show times: Tuesdays-Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Location: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on campus at UCSD
More information: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.com