When they're not scaring people in horror movies, clowns are supposed to make people laugh. But what's an unfunny clown to do? A sad and desperate clown named Timmy thinks drugs will make him hilarious, but it doesn't work out as planned and he turns up dead in Clown Bar, an immersive production by The NOLA Project at the Little Gem Saloon.
Although he was one of the best in his business, Happy Mahoney (Alex Martinez Wallace) left clown life to become a police detective. He returns to the clown bar to exact revenge for his brother Timmy's (Levi Hood) murder and comes across his former clown colleagues Twinkles (Richard Alexander Pomes), Giggles (Clint Johnson), Petunia (Natalie Boyd) and Shotgun (Alec Barnes). With colorful costumes designed by Lindy Bruns and makeup by Leslie Claverie, each clown has his or her own special look — Petunia's face is painted like a heart, and Shotgun has a permanent creepy grin. This motley crew has excellent comedic timing, and the actors land every joke, particularly in small moments such as when a clown orders a drink and says "Make it funny," which results in a rubber chicken in a whiskey or a pie in the face.
The show is set in a bar, and director James Yeargain creates an interactive environment. Clowns roam among audience members, who are encouraged to go to the bar for drinks at any point during the show. This looseness adds to the production's energy and excitement as action happens in the barroom's corners. There's also a small stage on which Dusty (Keith Claverie), a lounge singing sad-faced clown, sings numbers with lyrics such as "there's no heaven for clowns." Claverie has a great voice, and his comedic songs punctuate the show and propel the narrative.
Written by Adam Szymkowicz, the show finds rich humor with its murderous clowns and noirish elements. When clowns get shot, they spurt confetti instead of blood. The piece could use a less sinister clown: Mahoney disowned his clown ways, and a clean clown would help flesh out this interesting world.
Mahoney — the only character not in clown makeup — is on a mission, and Wallace provides the show's emotional grounding. Guilt drives the character, and Wallace shows how clowns deal with turmoil. His interactions with ex-girlfriend Blinky Fatale (Kali Russell) are some of the show's best moments. Blinky is a burlesque dancer clown, and Russell makes her both odd and sexy. Their love story is strangely touching and helps push the show to a satisfying and unexpectedly poignant end.
With funny actors and interesting staging, The NOLA Project makes the most of Clown Bar's dark humor.