Stage Door Review

Buffoon

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

✭✭

by Anosh Irani, directed by Richard Rose

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, Toronto

November 20-December 15, 2019

Smile: “All life is algebra”

Tarragon Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Buffoon, the latest play by BC-based author Anosh Irani. The solo play is a magic realistic narrative about a boy growing up among unhappy trapeze artists at the circus. Since narratives about old-fashioned circus, like Cecil B. DeMille’s movie The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) or Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956), always seem to be about unhappy trapeze artists, Irani’s story hardly covers new ground. Its main function is to supply Anand Rajaram with a tour de force role that is a marvel to watch.

In Buffoon we first encounter Rajaram’s main character Felix as a prisoner who has come out to meet an unnamed visitor. Why Felix is in prison and who the visitor is we do not learn until near the very end of the show. The mystery is that Felix knows the visitor and yet feels he needs to tell his entire life story in order to explain what happened to bring him here.

Felix organizes his narrative according to a statement by Mark Twain: “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why”. (As a side note, this is one of many statements falsely attributed to Mark Twain.) Therefore, he takes us first back to the day of his birth. This is a horrendous day for his mother trapeze artist Olga because she doesn’t like children and doesn’t want to be a mother.

Poor little Felix is effectively raised by his father Frank, Olga’s Scottish husband and trapeze partner, and by the wise Smile, the circus ticket seller, who becomes Felix’s confidant and introduces him to the world of literature. Smile consoles him when he falls in love with a girl his age and helps him recover when he literally breaks his heart when he sees her kissing another boy.

Meanwhile, Felix’s parents fight. Olga wants to do a triple somersault, but Frank refuses because it’s too dangerous. They hear that the circus is going to hire a second male trapeze artist and Olga is sure he is brave enough to let her do a triple somersault. (As side note, a love triangle among trapeze artists, one crippled, and a triple somersault all feature in the plot of the movie Trapeze.)

One time in the midst of grief Felix breaks his leg while trying presumably to commit suicide. Someone passing by calls him a buffoon, and this fulfils the second part of Mark Twain’s (fictitious) statement about life. Felix realizes he is a clown in life and should become a clown in the circus since clowns, according to Felix, are the antithesis of acrobats. Irani gives us only one excerpt of Felix routine as a clown which is much more like that of a stand-up comedian. We are surprised to find that Felix has become so set against children. Does he not have enough awareness that he is repeating his mother’s least likeable trait? If a clown is the antithesis of an acrobat, shouldn’t his views be different too?

As the play progresses we wonder how Felix ever can to be in prison. Unfortunately, Irani has packed all this information into the last ten minutes of the show. It is so contrived and unnecessary that perhaps he doesn’t want to give us too much time to think about it. It turns out it is contrived that Felix should be speaking to us from prison at all. He will be released the next day. Why didn’t his mysterious visitor come to meet him on his release?

Throughout the action Smile has made the comment “All life is algebra” without ever explaining what he means. The explanation is the very last line of the play and it only explains Felix’s immediate situation. How it in any way explains the events Smile has commented upon earlier is doubtful.

Since Irani’s 90-minute-long tale is less than satisfying, Anand Rajaram has the duty to make this story as entertaining as possible. This he accomplishes. If you can admire a show for the acting alone and ignore the story being enacted, then you will be the right audience for Buffoon.

Rajaram gives a tremendous performance. Not only does he play Felix from infancy into his 20s but he plays the four other people deeply involved in his life. He is very funny as Felix’s mother Olga, who is so vain she can’t stand to be called “mama”. For her, Felix is just someone to fetch and light her cigarettes. While she is supposed to be Russian, Irani has her speak German and Rajaram gives her a German accent. In any case, Rajaram delves so deeply into her character that she is the most vivid of the figures that surround Felix.

By comparison Felix’s father Frank is rather bland. Rajaram lets us see that sturdy Scotsman Frank is filled with emotion, especially love for Olga, that he cannot express. Rajaram demonstrates graphically how Frank literally deflates under Olga’s criticism.

Also rather bland is Felix’s girlfriend Adya (or some alternate spelling) who is playful but infinitely patient with the all of Felix’s foolishness. Indeed it would help if Irani gave us more of an idea what she sees in Felix that makes her stay with him from childhood to early adulthood.

Unlike all three of these, is Smile the enigmatic ticket seller, whose profound knowledge of life and art makes one wonder why he holds such a comparatively menial role in the circus. Rajaram gives him a deep, cultured British accent as if he were somehow the Dumbledore of the play.

Rajaram’s master creation is Felix whose commentary on his unusual life we hear from infancy on. His Felix is a sympathetic figure, prone to panic, devastated by his mother’s lack of love, outwardly inept yet inwardly seeking a philosophy that will help him understand the world.

Rajaram is a master of physical comedy and slips from character to character and from the young emotional Felix to the older sober Felix with ease. The single chair of the ultra-minimalist set becomes any object that Rajaram says it is. Rajaram gives Felix a nervous laugh that under pressure can turn subtly into weeping and back again, thus revealing the precarious state of Felix’s emotions. Rajaram is especially good at showing how Felix’s self-consciousness continually sabotages his speech and actions. In the funniest sequence of the show, Rajaram has Felix prepare for minutes and in all possible ways to get himself and his mouth ready for his very first kiss.

Jason Hand’s lighting is instrumental in establishing mood and location on the nearly bare stage. His stark, abrupt shifts to the overlit prison are necessary to remind us where Felix is when he is narrating his softly lit life. A soundscape from Thomas Ryder Payne is unnecessary since Rajaram is so effective in conjuring up world through words. Payne’s recorded sound effects are especially unwelcome since Rajaram makes his own.

Buffoon provides an superb showcase for Rajaram’s amazing virtuosity and I am glad to have seen the show simply to have seen him perform. At the same time I couldn’t help but wish that his immense talent had been expended in telling a tale that was not so cobbled together and contrived and that actually had something to say.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Anand Rajaram in Buffoon. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com.