Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Jen­nifer Levin The New Mex­i­can

The lat­est of­fer­ing from Santa Fe’s The­ater Grottesco is in­spired by a quo­ta­tion from as­tronomer Carl Sa­gan: “If you want to make an ap­ple pie from scratch, you must first in­vent the uni­verse,” and the plot in­volves the an­tics of clowns, bouf­fons, a gi­ant baby, and the re­cre­ation of space and time. Pie has its gala ben­e­fit on Fri­day, April 14, at the Adobe Rose Theatre, and con­tin­ues with per­for­mances through April. On the cover are com­pany mem­bers from Pie, cour­tesy The­ater Grottesco.

The­ater Grottesco writes all of its plays as a col­lec­tive. The mem­bers of the per­ma­nent com­pany might spend more than a year think­ing and talk­ing about ideas be­fore get­ting on their feet to shape the story and be­gin re­hearsals. They rely on the art of clown­ing — as well as dance, move­ment, and ges­tu­ral com­mu­ni­ca­tion — more than on a scripted nar­ra­tive. The ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing the end re­sult can be dis­con­cert­ing, even rig­or­ous, as noth­ing about what they present is typ­i­cal of tra­di­tional Amer­i­can the­ater — like, say, a play by Arthur Miller. It’s closer in spirit to Shake­spearean com­edy but far more ex­per­i­men­tal — play­ful, even child­like at times — strongly an­chored in the history and tra­di­tion of Euro­pean the­atri­cal per­for­mance. Some­times, what an au­di­ence takes away from The­ater Grottesco is not ex­actly what the ac­tors in­tended. They don’t mind. They want to hear what you saw and in­cor­po­rate it into their creative process.

Grottesco was orig­i­nally founded in Paris and has been in Santa Fe since 1996, led by John Flax, who, with three other com­pany mem­bers, ap­pears in the troupe’s lat­est en­deavor, Pie, play­ing at the Adobe Rose Theatre from Fri­day, April 14. Pie was in­spired by the fol­low­ing quo­ta­tion from as­tronomer Carl Sa­gan: “If you want to make an ap­ple pie from scratch, you must first in­vent the uni­verse.”

“And, here we are,” said Danielle Louise Red­dick, who ap­peared in Grottesco’s The Mo­ment of YES! in 2015, along with the rest of the Pie cast.

Pasatiempo in­ter­viewed the cast at the Grottesco re­hearsal space, a rented store­front at the Santa Fe Fash­ion Out­lets on Cer­ril­los Road. The win­dows are cov­ered in brown pa­per, for pri­vacy, but a sign on the door and a stand out­side with a stack of rack-cards for Pie an­nounce their pres­ence. When writ­ing about The­ater Grottesco, the first chal­lenge is to get a han­dle on what the cur­rent show is about — a slip­pery prospect. The sec­ond is the group’s in­sis­tence that most of the plot points they re­veal re­main off the record. The third is that Flax can be a bit of a trick­ster.

“Well, there is this old cou­ple, and they’re mar­ried, and they’ve had a re­ally rough life,” he said when the in­ter­view be­gan. “No, that’s not it.”

“That’s not what it’s about,” the other cast mem­bers chimed in, laugh­ing and talk­ing over one another, sound­ing for all the world like a congress of clowns or some kind of Greek cho­rus.

“Pie is about so many things. It’s about ev­ery­thing and noth­ing,” Apollo Gar­cia Orel­lana said. “But it’s not about noth­ing, so we cut that out.”

All Pasatiempo can say about the begin­ning of the play is that the char­ac­ters — who are clowns — have been called to a place where their ex­per­tise is needed, but when no one tells them what to do, they crack. And then they turn from clowns into bouf­fons. “They are al­most gods,” Orel­lana said. “Demigods,” Flax said. “Al­ter-egos,” Tara Khozein said. “It’s crazy. It’s stupid. It’s about a gi­ant baby who eats space and time, and pukes out the uni­verse,” said Kent Kirk­patrick, in a mo­ment that was not spec­i­fied as off the record. Kirk­patrick ap­peared in the re­cent Adobe Rose pro­duc­tion of Bus Stop.

“Bouf­fon” is a French word, which has its roots in the Latin verb buf­fare, mean­ing to puff up or fill one’s cheeks with air for comic ef­fect, and the Ital­ian buf­fone. In the 16th cen­tury, it de­noted a pro­fes­sional jester. Though “buf­foon,” in its mod­ern us­age, usu­ally means a crass joker who does not per­ceive his own ig­no­rance, ac­cord­ing to Flax, the art of bouf­fon pre­dates that of clown and is a much harsher style of comedic per­for­mance. Flax trained at L’École In­ter­na­tionale de Théâtre Jac­ques Le­coq in Paris, an in­sti­tu­tion ded­i­cated to play­writ­ing through im­pro­vi­sa­tion, new works, and cre­at­ing play­ful phys­i­cal per­for­mance lan­guages. Le­coq is known to have re-coined the term “bouf­fon” for the­ater in the early 1960s as a per­for­mance style that re­lies heav­ily on mock­ery. Khozein and Orel­lana, who both grew up in Santa Fe, also trained at Le­coq.

“Bouf­fon is satire,” Khozein said. “But John is bet­ter at telling this story.”

“It comes out of the Mid­dle Ages, when any­one who was dif­fer­ent was ex­cluded from so­ci­ety,” Flax said. “So­ci­ety was afraid of them, so they were thrust out and they found each other in forests and on ships of fools. They cre­ated their own strange so­ci­eties with their own hi­er­ar­chies. Once a year they were in­vited back into the vil­lages to scare off evil spir­its, while the peo­ple hid in their homes after eat­ing an elab­o­rate feast. The bouf­fons would feast and make wild mock­ery — and that’s where Mardi Gras comes from. All clown and com­me­dia dell’arte comes from that, but it’s been kind of sanded down and made sweeter. Bouf­fons are more dan­ger­ous. They have noth­ing to lose. If you pick up a shovel to kill one of them, he’ll prob­a­bly do rat-face at you be­fore he dies.” Flax demon­strated by screw­ing up his face and hiss­ing, quite like a rat might if faced with im­mi­nent dan­ger.

“The­atri­cally,” he added, “it’s the op­po­site of tragedy. Tragedy is a huge ar­chi­tec­ture, and you’re speak­ing to the gods. In bouf­fon, it’s the same ar­chi­tec­ture, only you’re speak­ing to the devil.”

Flax’s elab­o­rate history les­son was fol­lowed by a string of highly con­cep­tual off-the-record in­for­ma­tion about Pie’s plot, in­volv­ing ge­ol­ogy, eco­nomics, and spir­i­tu­al­ity, capped by a game show. What we can say for cer­tain is that bouf­fons de­stroy ev­ery­thing and then re­set the uni­verse.

“The char­ac­ters are thrown into a sit­u­a­tion where they have to re­learn what it is to be free or how to func­tion,” Orel­lana said.

“For me, per­son­ally, the most pow­er­ful thing in this play is that it’s where we are right now,” Kirk­patrick said. “What do we do when we don’t know what to do next? What are we here for? These four poor clowns come to many places like this in their jour­ney of an hour and fif­teen min­utes. They don’t know what to do next, and the cri­sis is in de­cid­ing and choos­ing.”

“Any com­men­tary re­gard­ing the cur­rent state of things is in­ci­den­tal, un­planned,” Red­dick said. “Things come out in re­hearsal, but we only see it in ret­ro­spect. We are re­ally mir­ror­ing and ex­press­ing hu­man­ity right now.”

Many ques­tions re­mained, but the most press­ing was ob­vi­ously, “Will there be pie?”

Pie was in­spired by the fol­low­ing quo­ta­tion from as­tronomer Carl Sa­gan: “If you want to make an ap­ple pie from scratch, you must first in­vent the uni­verse.”

Danielle Louise Red­dick; op­po­site page, from left to right, Red­dick, John Flax, Apollo Gar­cia Orel­lana, and Tara Khozein; cour­tesy The­ater Grottesco

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