L’Histoire d’Amour is a window into the soul

The humble miracle of Corrie Van Ausdal’s Fishtank performance studio isn’t simply that such a lark exists, although it is remarkable: a theater where actors perform behind a storefront window for a crowd seated in folding chairs on Wyandotte. Still, theater today is always unlikely; this one is just a touch more than most. What’s most worth celebrating is that the theater at Fishtank has been so memorable.

First, Van Ausdal crammed herself behind the glass to star in a version of Sorry, Wrong Number that took on the voyeuristic edge of Rear Window. Even better, Van Ausdal has now paired up with clown-of-all-trades Heidi Van — also adept at bringing the unlikely to life — for L’Histoire d’Amour, a daft dream of a romantic one-act. It’s a show that could only find life at the Fishtank, mining all the possibilities of a window, a street and clowning.

Wearing a great red nose and padded out like a comic-book sexpot, Van flounces behind the glass as a Parisian pastry chef smitten with her own delicacies. Smitten with her, meanwhile, is the window washer played by Matt Weiss, a clown himself, who charms the crowd, woos the girl, and folds a tissue into a white rose with comic aplomb. He courts her through the window; eventually, with that glass still between them, they tango. Both Van and Weiss are adroit physical comedians, and their dance is as odd and hilarious as one might hope. It’s also charged with an undeniable clownish eroticism and even a little violence.

Like all good love stories, L’Histoire d’Amour teeters between passion and pain. Faced with the typical misunderstandings that love stories depend upon, these lovers also dip into surprising anger. What struck me most, though, were the highs: Weiss pirouetting around a signpost, Van painting a heart in pastry cream right on the glass. Without words, and in just a half-hour, L’Histoire d’Amour works up more excitement between its lovers than most full-length romances.

Van Ausdal, who directs, ably proportions elements that might otherwise have conflicted. Original music composed and performed by the accordion-and-clarinet duo of Dan Eichenbaum and Peter Lawless is invaluable. Its melancholy whimsy shapes these characters’ lives just as much as the window does. I relished the clarinet glissando that accompanies every wipe of Weiss’ squeegee — except when the glissando doesn’t, for some reason, and these moments are funnier still. Stumped by the silence, Weiss glares at the squeegee, and then at the clarinet, and then tries again. He wears a clown nose but no face paint, so his frustration — like his passion — feels like the real deal rather than an abstraction. He and Van are proof that clowns don’t need the makeup to show us the human.

The funniest thing I’ve ever heard came from the back of a Greyhound bus at 2 a.m. in Salt Lake City. As more passengers than the bus could hold filed on, a squeaky-voiced lunatic, two seats up from me, sputtered to each new rider: “Don’t sit next to me! Nobody sits next to me!”

Nobody sat next to him, and everyone who hadn’t crammed into our bus formed a new line outside to wait for the next. Until the driver noticed and called outside for one more passenger.

A little old man hobbled down the aisle, and Squeaky went crazy. “Don’t sit next to me!”

The old man stopped, confused. And then a great voice boomed from the back of the bus.

“Hey, man, where you headed?”

“Buffalo!” Squeaky shouted.

“That’s good. They could use you out there.”

Squeaky hollered back, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Out there in Buffalo, those cocks don’t suck themselves.”

The bus exploded. Grandparents, children, white and black — never have I heard such laughter. People cried, Squeaky stopped squeaking, and the old man took his seat.

I’ll laugh at any joke that’s delivered with sufficient force, wit and timing — moral qualms be damned.

That said, a barrage of cheap, lazy gay jokes has kept me out of local comedy and improv shows for most of this year. I tried again recently and found more of the same. In show after show, area comics ridicule an exaggerated notion of how gay men walk, talk and love, which provokes reactionary laughter: that of the powerful mocking the disenfranchised.

I’m sure that, however bullying and small-minded the jokes, these comics do not hate gay people. But here’s a charge that can’t be argued: The gags themselves are stale and routine, like Bob Hope’s riffs on his golf swing. They’re just filler, lacking all the force and wit of that anonymous voice in the back of the bus.

Of the three comedy troupes I saw late last month, only Anomaly Orange got through a set without relying on this worn-out standby. The others gave us graphic man on man (as if such a pairing is inherently comic) and much closeted panic. The men in Sketchy Thoughts are forever playing characters who fight to hide a shameful homosexuality.

These jokes just suck themselves.

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Categories: A&E, Stage