"It's too white!" wails a member of the all-female troupe known as Clowns Ex Machina, staring in forlorn desperation at a blank canvas she's just thrust onto a wall. And with that we're dragged kicking and screaming – well, wondering and laughing – into an unhinged, twisted, thoroughly clowned-up version of our too-too-serious world of art and culture.
Aside from one fairly quick attempt to scuff it up, the white surface remains untouched for the rest of the show, staring blankly across the stage as the nine clowns treat us to a series of intriguing, if mostly story-free, acts at which we find ourselves laughing helplessly, sometimes without knowing quite why.
Touching on facets of culture ranging from fashion to alienation, Dada to Janis Joplin, the artsy theme established by the white canvas ties the "scenes" together, but they don't move towards anything in particular. Some are little more than tableaux, others comedic skits, still others sequences of shout-outs to famous artists or cosmetic products or feminine problems. Described in plain language, a lot of these "skits" wouldn't seem funny at all. The show is neither a play, nor a circus, nor anything that can be adequately summed up by a grammatically rendered description like this. Nor can video clips convey how funny it is; I watched one on YouTube and was nonplussed, to put it mildly. Apparently you have to see this troupe in person in order to appreciate what they do.
The show's creator, Kendall Cornell, performs somewhat apart from the rest of the troupe as "The Poor Sophisticate," first marveling raucously at paintings on a balcony, then treating us to a hilarious monologue about her love for "Paris FRANCE" and other celebrated beacons of culture. This insufferably romantic malaprop artist distills the show's meaning – to the extent that it has one – into her desperate but only half-comprehending love of the arts. Just as the clowns don't know what to do with their blank canvas, the scenes can't cohere into a meaningful sequence – yet we are left with something like the pleasantly full feeling one gets from a delicious, well-curated, exceptionally creative restaurant meal.
Celebrating its 50th season even as it absorbs the death of founder Ellen Stewart, La Mama presents Clowns Full-Tilt: A Musing on Aesthetics featuring Clowns Ex Machina through Nov. 20, and as long as you are willing to leave behind some of your usual expectations for theater (and even for clowning), this unusual show will reward you.