Hillbarn Theatre stages ‘A Thousand Clowns’

Nonconformism is a common theme on the American stage. Nowhere is it more evident than in Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns.” Hillbarn Theatre’s production of the show opens Thursday and runs through Feb. 17.

The plot centers on Murray Burns, an unemployed television writer who lives in New York with his 12-year-old nephew, Nick. When the boy writes an essay on the benefits of the unemployment system, it causes his school to investigate his home. Confronted by child-welfare social workers, Murray is put in an appalling situation to choose between fulfilling personal pursuits or family obligations. If he doesn’t find a job, he’ll lose custody of his nephew.

Murray’s humor, tenacity and lust for life are what people love about him. At the same time, they’re also what make him unsuited for conventional society.

Louis Schilling, in his first leading role at Hillbarn, plays Murray. He says, “Murray is a nonconformist, happy-go-lucky guy who doesn’t take life as seriously as he should. In that regard I’m just like Murray, since I’m still waiting to become an adult even though I’m middle-aged. I feel like a kid in a grown-up body. And coincidentally, like Murray, I’m a bachelor uncle with an older, more conservative brother with children and a younger free-spirit sister. My biggest hurdle is learning all the lines, especially monologues, as well as playing the ukulele.”

Breigh Zach makes her debut at Hillbarn as Sandra Markowitz, a social worker. She says, “When Sandra walks through Murray’s door, looking prim and proper, she is basically doing her job. With Murray’s encouragement, she is able to open the circus-car door and let out a thousand clowns, to see all the different Sandys that are out there.”

Zach says she is challenged by the Bronx accent and showing huge change in Sandy’s character, an “emotional roller coaster.”

The part of Nick is double-cast,played by both Riley Costello and Gabe Hoffman. Gabe describes Nick as a 12-year-old going on 40. He says, “He is the adult in the relationship between himself and his Uncle Murray. I can relate to Nick because I have been told that I am 12 going on 40 more than once.”

Gabe has problems relating to the 1960s era in which the show is set. He says, “I find there are some weird words back then that you would never expect a 12-year-old to say, and many sentences are not grammatically correct.”

Director Toni Tomei worked on a production of “A Thousand Clowns” in 1976, when she recorded an original theme song for the show. For this new Hillbarn presentation Tomei, resident Musical Director Greg Sudmeier and Associate Artistic Director Joe Duffy have re-created it.

Tomei says, “It’s fun to reflect back at a glimpse of what life was like in the 1960s. I think both Murray and Nick are on a bit of a ‘dreamquest,’ our theme for Hillbarn’s 67th season.”

Hillbarn Theatre is at 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. Call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.

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