Adventures in Naked Empire's bouffonery
An evening spent in the presence of the Naked Empire Bouffon Company is always an unsettling experience. It can be difficult sometimes to assess who is actually performing for whom, as bouffons are wickedly adept at reading individuals and pulling them however briefly into the spotlight not as props, but as human beings with something to hide.
Unlike clowns, who often devise situations during which the oddience may laugh at them, bouffons laugh at the oddience from a position of almost comically aggressive power. It can be as simple as an offhand observation (“recently dyed,” one bouffon sniffed at a blonde streak) or a direct poke at a cultural or time-sensitive taboo (“surely it’s still too early to be referencing radiation in Japan”), but once they’ve got you in the crosshairs of their uniquely confrontational form of physical theatre, a bouffon shoots straight from the hip.
“As a citizen I am consistently impressed by how much of the “unsayable” the bouffon is allowed to say and by how well people hear it,” writes Naked Empire artistic director Nathaniel Justiniano. Justiniano first experienced the art form at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre and was immediately attracted to its audacious commitment to the truth.
“(It’s) a corkscrew type of energy…boring into the audience and sniffing out the muck we try to hide.” But despite the element of improv, Bouffon performance is also tightly scripted, allowing the performers a tightly structured framework to work within, and break out from when it becomes relevant to do so.
Performing as part of the Home Theatre festival in an artist’s warehouse dubbed the Main Street Theatre, Justiniano and company member Ross Travis performed two solo shows starring their Bouffon alter egos: Zooka Splat and Cousin Cruelty.
Nathanial Justiniano's Cousin Cruelty addresses his audience. Photo by Ross Travis
Ross as Zooka burst into the room, screaming a war cry and dressed in tattered camouflage. He circled the crowd knowingly, leaping on the backs of the sofas they sat in, leering at their shock. Like a one-man Mad Max, he ably deconstructed the post-apocalypse genre of action films and doomsayer surrender in a series of vignettes that mapped out the bizarre terrains of alien abduction, zombie uprisings, nuclear holocaust, and macho bullshit.
Justiniano’s Cousin Cruelty, a lewd giggling juggernaut of murderous impulse and fart jokes bounded out, shopping bag in hand, looking for trouble. Trouble came in the form of an orgy of mimed bloodshed -- until from the shopping bag, a querulous puppet demanded to be released.
Between the puppet’s script – a passionate, twelve-minute long speech denouncing the death penalty, delivered by Orson Welles in the 1959 film “Compulsion”— and Cousin Cruelty’s gleefully chaotic depictions of the origins and implications of violence, the oddience would have been pushed out of their “theatre-going” comfort zone even without the addition of the personal attentions bestowed on them by puppet and puppet-master alike.
The laughter these twisted creatures provoked was genuine, but with an edge of unease, which is exactly the effect Justiniano is looking for.
“This laughter is uncomfortable....(It's) the laughter that humans tend to find comforting when the silence or truth is too heavy.”
Intrigued by buffoonery? Check Naked Empire's website for upcoming classes in this uncomfortable art
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