As the economy crumbles all around us, Depression-era nostalgia is in the air. One of this summer's highlights for me was spending a gorgeous August evening watching a free screening of Duck Soup on a boat docked on the Hudson, courtesy of Cinebeasts. (This cool little collective had teamed up with the Lilac Preservation Project to raise funds to restore the good ship Lilac, built the same year the Marx Brothers classic hit screens.)
And now there's the New York Clown Theatre Festival at the Brick, running from September 3 - 26. Among the whopping 26 shows and cabarets, from an international array of performers, presented this year is "Diz and Izzy Aster – Vaudeville's Late Bloomers," which I caught on a double bill with "Ferdinand the Magnificent!" Diz and Izzy are the Burns-and-Allen type creation of multi-talented Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—who sing, strum, and slapstick their way through familiar ditties, including a "new song by a young starlet" named Judy Garland. (Technically, Izzy plays "Over the Rainbow" on a musical saw.) Ferdinand the Magnificent, on the other hand, is a genuine big-nosed, diaper-wearing clown clad in an obnoxious, neon-pink bodysuit. Resembling a Dodo bird, this alter ego of puppeteer and musician Nick Trotter is a descendant of none other than Harpo Marx, and communicates mostly through physical gestures and the small cowbell tied about his waist.
While Diz and Izzy are content to remain on stage and soothe the crowds with ukulele renditions of "Hey Look Me Over" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me," or an a cappella version of "a song that Charlie Chaplin wrote" for The Circus, Ferdinand is a hands-on player, literally. (If you're the sort of audience member who freaks out at the thought of interacting with a lovesick clown simply make like a critic. Notebooks to actors are like garlic to vampires.) From his making music with an M&M-filled, motor oil container and a long, green garden hose (both pulled from his overstuffed diaper) to suddenly singing Latin love songs a cappella, Ferdinand is as wonderfully unpredictable as a toddler.
Indeed, what all these strikingly relaxed performers have in common is that, even while they use their bodies as instruments to the fullest, they're not trying to be guffaw-funny but sweetly entertaining. ("Go WPA program!" Diz cheers after one number. When Izzy falls asleep on stage, Diz reassures us with, "My husband is a necrophiliac. He'll be fine once I find his pills," before stepping on and over him in a bit of physical comedy.) And in an era when a bigger-is-better, louder-is-prouder mindset has paved the way to the Great Recession, this reminder to try a little humbleness is certainly nothing to laugh at.
For more information about the New York Clown Theatre Festival, click here.