In a town where there are more domestic pets than kids, you’d think a show about a deceased cat would be dead in the water – but not so with Clowns on a Stick’s “How to Bury a Cat” opening Friday at Shotwell Studios.
Founding member of the performance troupe, James Pelican – who so identified with the graceful goofiness of that bird that he legally adopted it for his last name – explains: “Clowns are considered the bearers of happiness. But I think what they're really responsible for is being expansive and hyperbolic – expressing the human situation.
When they cry, they really, really cry; when they express anger they really express anger and when they express tenderness and happiness those things are really outsized.”
He describes what he refers to as the “solemn duty” of a clown: “It’s that to all things we can laugh, even death…especially that. [In this piece] there are a lot of jokes but there's also emotional gravity …particularly at the end. People have come up to us after each show to tell us that their cat just died and this really facilitated their grief.”
The 70-minute show, with a between-act “intermission,” is the first full-length program for this ensemble.
Pelican and company, who have worked together for more than 10 years, hope the piece will draw fans of serious and avant-garde theater: “What excited us about the outline was that there were a lot of ‘bones’ on which to hang our clown-y flesh. We developed quite a language to communicate this narrative arc without words.”
It wouldn't be a clown show if there weren't multiple diversions: zombies, visual and auditory gags, irreverent violence followed by hilarity, all with live acoustic accompaniment by percussionist Bernie Jungle and jazz musician Rob Reich.
But the cast’s professional experience brings depth and breadth to the material. Pelican, an actor in the North Bay, trained in clowning at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theater and produces and directs the Chautauqua Revue at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center.
Spanish-born co-founder Lluis Valls studied dramatic arts at San Francisco State University and performs with San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen, a Noh and Kyogen-inspired company. Christina Lewis, who has a master’s degree in drama therapy, works with students with severe mental and physical disabilities and is the director of San Francisco’s Clown School.
Clown-phobic needn’t worry: these are not your Barnum and Bailey heavily painted archetypes, but highly skilled comedic actors – with red noses.