January 26, 2007

Audience delights while clowns suffer in Agon

In a spotlight show, a production has no limitations. Spotlight shows don’t happen often—most shows fit into one of UT’s regular formats. Agon isn’t one of those. The play explores the extremes of physical theater and connects them loosely to the story of Aeschylus’s Oresteia.

From the moment the first clown comes on stage, two things happen to most audience members. They become completely absorbed by the action that is taking place on stage, even if they struggle to understand it, and then after a few moments, they realize that this is a production unlike any they have seen before.

Yes, the first clown. All of the actors are clowns. And for about 40 minutes, they engage in unbelievably intense physical theater, enacting a vast range of emotions and circumstances in a way that is extremely gripping—even a little harrowing. They use their bodies, wide-eyed expressions, and an eclectic collection of found props to create intense emotional effects.

The production, explained director Angeline Gragasin, is about a combination of Eastern and Western traditions of physical theater. The show is part of her B.A. project, which investigates both the French Classical School of mime and clown and the more laborious and extreme Polish School.

“In traditional theater, your motivations are given to you,” said Gragasin. “The director tells you that now you are exhausted, or now you are afraid. The idea here is, instead, let’s have you feel real fear, real exhaustion. It’s about risking physical and emotional comfort.” The idea is that working through real discomforts will, in Gragasin’s words, “facilitate a more truthful expression.”

Whether they are climbing on each other, balancing on a giant wooden spool, or simply staring out at the audience, one of the most striking things about the show is just how good the actors are at clowning. Not only are their expressions convincing and energetic, but the clowns also perform a lot of complicated and impressive stage acrobatics.

To get to the level of even putting together a performance took a lot of practice and training. The actors have taken classes from 500 Clown, a company in residence at the University, and Gragasin has trained them extensively with her experience from Double Edge Theater in Ashfield, Massachusetts. They’ve worked almost every day for the last month and only began to construct the actual performance last week.

The performance itself was planned in collaboration with all of the actors—Ryland Barton, Drew Dir, Emily Boyd, Jesse Robbins, and Gragasin. It uses scenes from the Oresteia only as a very loose framework to build from. The story itself is unimportant; the main focus is how the actors manage to involve the audience in the separate actions that take place on stage. In this goal, it’s extremely successful.

“I’m not interested in people identifying with it in any particular way,” said Gragasin. “If you are captivated by it, then I have succeeded.”

Agon is showing this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. in the Design Lab behind the Reynolds Club’s Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater. It’s captivating, and it’s free.