Stage Door Review 2023

Easy as Pie

Sunday, July 9, 2023


by Aaron Malkin & Alastair Knowles, directed by David MacMurray Smith

• James and Jamesy, Toronto Fringe Festival, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

July 5-16, 2023;

• Winnipeg Fringe PTE Mainstage, Winnipeg, MB

July 19-30, 2023;

• Edmonton Fringe Festival, Garneau Theatre, Edmonton, AB

August 18-23, 2023

“The face is a blank canvas”

Canada’s beloved clowns James and Jamesy are back in Toronto only six months after their fantastic show O Christmas Tea played the Bluma Appel Theatre in December. Their latest show, Easy as Pie, which premiered this year in Gibsons, BC, is now playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival, with dates set for the Fringes in Winnipeg and Edmonton. It is quite different from O Christmas Tea or their earlier tea-infused Fringe shows 2 for Tea (2013) or High Tea (2015). More than their earlier shows, Easy as Pie is a showcase of the duo’s stunning mastery of physical comedy and their uncanny ability to marry their abilities to the exploration of psychological themes that are at once serious and hilarious.

We have always known that James and Jamesy are purveyors of clown even if in their tea-themed series of shows they dressed in brown tweeds – James (Aaron Malkin) proper and rather drab, Jamesy (Alastair Knowles) flighty and rather eccentric. In Easy as Pie, James and Jamesy have become clowns in look as well as behaviour. Knowles and Kevin Maguire as designers have clad Jamesy in brashly colourful version of his old garb while they have dressed James in a full traditional clown suit complete with a baggy polka-dot one-piece jumpsuit with neck ruffles, huge shoes and conehead. Knowles and Maguire have included swaths of the same tartan plaid in both costumes to link James and Jamesy as friends and to link them back to the former tweedy incarnations.

The premise of the show could hardly be slimmer. The clowns are about to close their traditional clown routine with its traditional finish, a pie in the face, specifically a pie in James’s face, but James does everything to avoid being hit and their clown show ends without its splattering conclusion.

We next see the duo backstage assessing the show with James insisting that they check off all the required elements of a clown show. They check off everything but Jamesy is forced to note that James did not take a pie in the face as he was meant to do. James can hardly believe it. Why would he avoid performing one of the most defining acts of a clown show if he is truly a clown?

What seems like James simply trying to prevent Jamesy’s satisfaction in pieing him, we now see is part of an existential crisis that James is suffering. As James says, “It’s all in my head”. This being a James and Jamesy show where anything can happen, Jamesy decides to investigate. He blows in one of James’s ears and confetti comes out the other. Charitably, Jamesy realizes that there must be more inside James’s head than confetti and so he undertakes to enter James’s head and take a look around. We thus move from the duo’s mind-boggling abilities at physical comedy to massive mind-boggling in general as Jamesy plods around the sticky blacklit world of James’s brain.

Malkin and Knowles perform standard clown and mime routines with such perfection that the completion of each routine drew rounds of applause. We’ve all seen comedians walk downstairs behind a low wall. Malkin and Knowles take that routine up a notch in difficulty by taking an escalator downstairs. Simply imagine the body control necessary for that effect. Later, both take an elevator downwards and upwards behind the same low wall. The pair makes the old act of walking against a gale-force wind feel exciting and new.

Director David MacMurray Smith has helped the two gradate their effects from amazing to even more amazing. How do you depict Jamesy entering James’s head? You will see exactly and very convincingly just how he does it. How do you depict James entering his own head? Impossible, you might think, but James had figured out precisely how to do it. James and Jamesy’s shows have always been based on the premise that anything can be what we imagine, and these intracranial excursions leave you with the impression that James and Jamesy are the greatest performers of physical comedy in Canada.

But, James and Jamesy shows have also always been about feelings as much as technique. The rationale for the duo’s entering James’s brain is to find the source of the trauma that prevents him from taking a pie in the face. This they discover among many other memories behind the doors inside James’s mind, and what they find leads to a crisis in their friendship which is genuinely moving.

This is simply an amazing show. James and Jamesy’s tea parties have explored the relationship between the performer and the audience. Easy as Pie explores the depth of the relationship between James and Jamesy. The show should cure anyone with coulrophobia since it reveals James and Jamesy as human beings with their own fears and emotions. While we were dazzled at the start by their physical abilities, we are drawn in at the end by the emotion of their predicament. Will James be able to overcome the trauma of his past to continue as Jamesy’s comedic partner in the present?

Easy as Pie is a show for all ages and would be good to see as a family. Not only is there the immense skill of Malkin and Knowles to admire and the abundance of laughter to enjoy, but there are themes a family could usefully discuss. This is a must-see at the Toronto Fringe and will be so at the fringes in Winnipeg and Edmonton. Malkin and Knowles have raised the bar of the clown show even higher.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Alastair Knowles as Jamesy and Aaron Malkin as James; Aaron Malkin as James and Alastair Knowles as Jamesy. © 2023 Gontron Durocher.

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