Comedy. Juggling. Music. The macabre. All mingle in Dead + Alive, the darkly riotous clown show now at the historic Connelly Theater.
Richard Saudek stars in this inspired piece of vaudevillian theater with a seemingly unlikely inspiration. A Jewish burial custom assigns a guardian to keep watch over the body of a recently deceased person so their soul doesn’t escape and terrorize the living as a dybbuk. For most of the show Saudek with bitter brilliance plays a corpse. Body stiff and subject to manipulation, mouth stretched into a ghastly rictus – comedy gold, no?
But hasn’t Death, with all its fear and wonder, always entertained and animated us as much as it has broken and flummoxed us? Think of Day of the Dead in Mexico. Zombie comedy movies. All the jokey ghosts and dancing skeletons we see on Halloween.
Dead + Alive begins as a nearly wordless sequence of old-fashioned comedy-duo slapstick and classic clown routines. Then something unexpected occurs, and the dynamic between Saudek and fellow actor-juggler-clown Dana Dailey rapidly evolves through stages of disbelief and mourning. A corpse reanimates in excruciating physical-comedy detail. A horror-movie spider scene plays out in crypt-like gloom. The small company juggles pins and hoops in choreographed dances.
Sound + Vision
The corpse even breaks its silence to sing a song from beyond (actually from inside) the grave. Aside from that, the “story” is almost entirely mimed. But quiet it is not. As important and entertaining as the clowns on stage is musician-clown Benjamin Domask-Ruh. He bangs away at a honky-tonk piano that’s in deliciously ill repair; strums a tiny banjo; supplies timed sound effects with percussion and a theremin; and contributes bits of comedy business himself. Recorded sound cues add darker elements to the auditory landscape.
Dailey is compelling as mourner as well as sidekick and foil, embodying the sad-clown persona without the need for clown makeup. Pher, who co-directed with Saudek, cameos with lanky energy and juggling prowess. Still, the show’s focus and fulcrum remains Richard Saudek, on whose sharply honed and fine-tuned physical comedy skills it rests. Together they remind us that in a world of troubles, we the living need some clowning – be it alive or dead.