If you were asked to picture a clown, you’d probably imagine baggy pants, suspenders, white face paint and a red nose. That’s the traditional view, but David Bridel, associate director of the theater troupe Four Clowns, thinks clowns get a bad rap.
“There is a deep and lasting clown culture that I feel safe in, but the general public doesn’t understand it, trivializes it or thinks of it as antiquated,” Bridel said. “I don’t think any of that is true.”
Bridel is the founder and director of The Clown School, based in Los Angeles, and co-director of “Noah & Jonah,” two plays being performed together at the Annenberg Community Beach House.
The performances (4:30 p.m. July 10-11 and 16-18) diverge wildly from children’s Bible stories taught in school. The humor is edgy, dark, adult-oriented — and there are puppets. These are not your children’s birthday party clowns.
On a recent Tuesday evening, as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, five actors stood atop the stairs leading to the site’s Marion Davies Guest House, rehearsing their lines while holding handcrafted puppets of giraffes, elephants, mice, gorillas, crocodiles and rams.
“Maybe we could brainstorm the stereotypes of the animals?” Courtney Buchan, co-director of “Noah,” suggested to the assembled actors. “Like, maybe the crocodile is always trying to nibble on somebody?”
The actors filed inside, sat in a circle, and acted out a scene of animals being led aboard Noah’s Ark, swapping lines in goofy cartoon voices as the others laughed and took notes.
“See you later, alligator!” “We’re crocodiles — you probably think we all look the same!”
“You know the baggage restrictions, one trunk per elephant!” “How could we forget?”
“Glad we made the cut, unlike the unicorns.”
“Wait, you’re both rams!” “You have a problem with that?” “This is California, isn’t it?” “Some of my best friends are rams!” “Some are bears!”
A lot of the show’s jokes are intended for adults and will fly over kids’ heads. Like “The Simpsons,” the humor is meant to work on multiple levels.
Improvisation is at the heart of how Four Clowns operates. The actors spent a couple of weeks improvising scenes based on biblical passages. Bridel filmed them, then stitched their jokes together into a cohesive script, which is continually being fine-tuned. And, unlike traditional theater, anything can happen during the performance. The unexpected is part of the process.
“It’s all based on risky interaction with an audience,” Bridel said. “Clowning is full of surprise, revealing what’s scary or crazy or ugly about people. It’s a celebration of one’s mistakes, in public. It’s all about revealing human flaws and enjoying them.”
That’s what drew actress and comedian Anna Walters to study with Bridel at The Clown School. “At first, I looked at clowning with suspicion, disgust and maybe a little bit of pity. I assumed it was like Bozo,” said Walters, who became a company member in February. “But actually, it’s about exposing the best and worst in humanity, by exposing yourself in failure as much as in triumph, and celebrating both. It has room to be both subversive and liberating. For clowns, there’s no fourth wall. It’s direct engagement.”
Four Clowns takes its name from its inaugural production of the same name, first performed in 2010 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. The following year, they took on “Romeo & Juliet.” The company has since expanded to about two dozen performers.
To help inform the writing of “Noah & Jonah,” Four Clowns founder and artistic
director Jeremy Aluma asked Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, to explain to the actors the rabbinic interpretations of the stories of Noah and Jonah.
“We wondered, is Noah a hero? He’s sort of this jerk,” Walters said. “He never tries to save anyone. He just does what God says.”
Greenwald explained that the debate over Noah goes back to talmudic times. “Noah is described as ‘a righteous man in his generation,’ ” Greenwald said. “As most rabbis interpret it, in his particularly awful generation he was a little bit better, as opposed to someone you’d actually want to know in life.”
Greenwald explained that rabbis and scholars compare Noah to Abraham and Moses, who challenged God’s decisions. “There’s a consistent train of commentary that has seen Noah as a spiritual failure, for failing
to speak up on behalf of humanity to God,” Greenwald said. “Most rabbis criticize Noah for his obedience, wishing he had more chutzpah.”
That view corresponded with what the actors came up with in their improvised scenes. “In our irreverent approach to this, we arrived at a similar place, that Noah’s not a model to follow,” Walters said. “If Noah survived the flood, he’s the father of all humanity, and that’s what makes it so interesting, because he’s flawed.”
Jonah is viewed by religious scholars as a flawed character, as well. “Jonah is sort of an example of schadenfreude, of a figure who wants to see people punished and takes pleasure in seeing people be punished,” Greenwald said. “Jonah’s mission is to go to Nineveh and change their ways, lest they be destroyed. But Jonah ruins the mission, because he doesn’t want the possibility of Nineveh [changing]. In fact, he tells God, ‘I know you’re a forgiving God; I didn’t want them to change because I didn’t want you to forgive them.’ ”
Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, which conquered Israel and forced the Jewish Diaspora. “It makes sense Jonah wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Nineveh to change,” Greenwald said. “It’d be like in the 1940s, being sent to Germany and telling the Nazis to change.”
There’s a reason that rabbis like to tell the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, Greenwald said. “It’s a story about the part of ourselves that believes forgiveness shouldn’t be possible for bad people. Judaism teaches that if someone changes, there should be the possibility for forgiveness. Deep down we want to see people justly punished. We want them to get theirs, and we feel cheated if they don’t. It’s a human instinct, but not necessarily one of our higher instincts,” he said. “It’s ultimately tremendously destructive.”
The Four Clowns performance contains a taste of that theological debate — in between slapstick comedy and poop jokes.
“We try to preserve questions about the nature of faith and the nature of God’s will, and I hope the audience picks up some of the serious themes among the tomfoolery,” Bridel said.
“Noah & Jonah” will be performed July 9-11 and 16-18, at 4:30 pm each day, at the Annenberg Beach Community House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy, Santa Monica. Admission is free and open to the public.