Let me start by fessing up to something. I was never a big fan of clowns or mimes or anything remotely related to them. As a kid, I had to be removed early from a birthday party excursion to the circus. One look at that peculiar man with the red nose and baggy bloomers with the bright stripes and I couldn’t stop crying. He terrified me. The more he tried to make me laugh, the more he tweaked his nose or made it light up like a light bulb, the more I bawled. He wouldn’t talk no matter what, and one look at that smile of his painted red and greasy across his face—the smile behind which you could see his real lips sad and frowning—was enough to make me dissolve into tears all over again.
Perhaps clowns are acquired tastes. Like spinach or tomatoes or red wine, you loathe them as a child only to find as an adult that they have mysteriously become your favorites. Though I would be exaggerating if I said that clowns and mimes have become a favorite of mine, there are some notable exceptions—and Bob Berky, internationally renowned clown, mime, and juggler, is one of them.
There are few things in this world that can make you laugh for more than an hour straight, and I mean laugh in that childlike, wet-your-pants, tears-streaming-down-your-face, all-I-have-to-do-is-think-about-it-again-and-I’ll-lose-it kind of way. Berky can do that. Put him on stage in front of an audience of eight to 800 and he owns them. He plays the innocent so well, bravely tackling forces stronger than himself, but more importantly, he juggles with our consciousness, poking and pushing, teasing and toying with us into the realization that we, too, live in a world as absurd and laughable as that of a clown.
Steeped in the tradition of Marcel Marceau, Danny Kaye, and Red Skelton, as well as having studied and collaborated with today’s top performers in the field, including Bill Irwin, Michal Moschen, and Tony Montanero, Berky possesses an imagination as lush and fertile as a hothouse garden. Though he is just one body—one head, one set of arms, one pair of legs, and one torso holding everything together–his one body tells many stories, pulls many heartstrings, brings a wooden stage to life with no other actors, sets, or words.
In the first act of his show, Berky plays several characters that immediately come to life if for no other reason than they are real, sensitive, and creative. Sure, they don’t talk, but we instantly recognize them. We have seen them at home, at work, on the street—or in the mirror. Berky’s knack seems to be in creating characters that can be both lovable and laughable. Consider, for example, the birdwatcher. Decked out in full camouflage gear and weighed down by binoculars, notepad, and other necessary hobby paraphernalia, the birdwatcher not only takes on the characteristics of several of the species he has set out to spy upon, but is also forced to react to the birds themselves who soon start to torment him. In no time, he becomes the birdwatcher and the bird watched. As we grab our abdomens against the burn of hilarity, we can’t help but think of our own hobbies and pastimes and the preposterous seriousness we often bring to them.
Among other characters, we are also introduced to the fitness fanatic who—mark his non-verbalized words—will realize his dream of physical perfection. Dressed to the nines in running shoes, Lycra tights, and headband poised for sweat, he takes to the gym with a vengeance. As he huffs and puffs, contorts and pushes his puny husk of a body to do what the lean and sculpted around him can easily perform, his disdain for them and his own disappointment in his own God-given body grow unwanted and out-of-control like an adolescent’s pimple, red and bulbous on the tip of the nose. Without saying a word and only moving his body as though it were a puppet orchestrated by an oversized pair of hands, Berky creates character, story, and sympathy in all of us who have ever tried to transform our humble little bodies into something they can never be.
In the second act of the show, Berky introduces us to his clown. Complete with light bulb nose, battered top hat, and concertina (a mini, hexagonal accordion), Berky gives an endlessly inventive and fresh approach to the traditional clown. Part of his clown act involves calling up volunteers from the audience. What bigger nightmare than to have that clown point his finger at you and know that there is no enormous lumberjack or beehive-coiffed woman behind you to whom he is really pointing. And yet, because each show is as much about spontaneity and playing off the audience of that night, Berky and his hapless victims seem to do a dance that extends the magic he has already woven. Plucked from the audience, oversized men suddenly find themselves donning tutus, and other beet red-faced “volunteers” find themselves taped to a unicycle.
When the show ends and the people flow from their seats onto the sidewalks and streets beyond, the laughter continues: unadulterated, unmitigated, uninhibited laughter at its best and most pure.