I DON'T LIKE CLOWNS. When a handful of actors flails about wearing red noses and satirizing the Branch Davidian Waco debacle, of all things, I'll

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Well, maybe next year

Two new shows send in the clowns.

I DON'T LIKE CLOWNS. When a handful of actors flails about wearing red noses and satirizing the Branch Davidian Waco debacle, of all things, I'll admit that the likelihood of me grabbing my sides in mirthful laughter is fairly low. I don't like clowns, and I like them even less when they're metaphors.

ATF: A Burlesque

Annex Theater ends November 4

Circus Contraption

Sand Point Naval Air Station October 14, November 11, December 9

ATF: A Burlesque, Annex Theatre's ambitious but woebegone attempt to slam US government policy via tumbling, is indicative of everything that, to me, has been wrong with this fringe theater company of late. As conceived and directed by Tom Wiseley, the production goes gunning for the hypocritical American fixation with Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms armed only with the frustrating notion that frenzy and opinion can substitute for solid craft. It's high-minded, yet feels as if it were created to draw appreciation for its efforts and ideals rather than foment any discussion about its concerns.

John Shores (who is game and sly) addresses the audience as the duplicitous head honcho of a bunch of clown agents and by the second act is engaging with the other actors in a deconstruction not only of the Waco massacre but of the Annex production itself. This might be clever if the company had managed to erect a sturdy show in the first place. I'd like to see Annex take on something really dreadfully experimental, like You Can't Take It With You, just to prove that they still comprehend the painstaking construction behind theater's humdrum first, second, and third walls before they get back to the business of blasting through the fourth.

Wiseley and his company (he wrote the show with Bret Fetzer, cast member Paul Budraitis, and the rest of the ensemble) set about equating the procedures of federal agents with the antics of vaudevillian buffoons, and they lose sight of whatever they wanted to say in a pile-up of their own theatrical conceits. In addition to the clowning, there are puzzling blackout sketches and, surprise, television commentary featuring Fetzer himself (what would Annex do if they could not put themselves on TV every other show?). As for the bright spots, there is enthusiasm in the blazing, spot-on, five-person backup band, in the playful costuming from designer Maddy DuMont, and in the quite funny songs by Shores and fellow clown Paul Gude (a three-part chorale about the joys of smoking is a keeper).

These enthusiasms very quickly become all the evening has to offer, and energy is not comedy. It can occasionally work on film, where timing can be manipulated through editing, but ATF, of course, has no such luxury and thus exposes the difficulties behind physical humor. Though, admirably, these folks trained for nine months in order to meet the demands of the show, it never plays like anything more than a workshop project. When an actor pratfalls in a comic tangle with a bench, you're busy noticing the attempt at humor—the routine looks like a routine. The night I saw it, anyway, actors were still casting furtive glances at each other to get timing cues during the comic bits. None of the show is articulated with enough instinctual specificity to make you forget the bit and embrace the comedy.

MORE CLOWNS ARE gamboling out at Sand Point Naval Base, but as their aims don't include reflecting on national tragedies, the entertainment returns are a bit higher, if no more crucial. The denizens of Circus Contraption, a scrappy local performance troupe, have set their roots down for "a monthly celebration of circus, vaudeville, live music, decadence, and gastronomic delights," and while the evening isn't anything to run hollering about, it certainly delivers amusingly on its inexpensive promises.

Backed by a clanky, loopy, engaging big-top band, the show offers the circus as seedy cabaret, or Cabaret, as Master of Ceremonies Armitage Shanks' bawdy musical introductions and asides suggest (he quipped at one point that Jesus died on the cross because, in S&M etiquette, "he forgot his 'safe word'"). There's some naughtiness, some nudity, and the whole thing will move much better if you partake of the cheap beer on sale in the waiting area that serves as a gaudy food and game midway.

As for the expected acrobatics, let's just say that most of the feats are better than you or I could ever hope to accomplish but not, truth be told, better than you or I could ever imagine. Aside from two faultlessly lovely and accomplished routines performed while twirling in fabric and rope above the crowd, just enough stumbling and dropping of juggling pins occurs to make you a trifle uncertain as to the outcome of each distraction.

Not everyone here is a comic performer, to be sure, the blackout sketches don't work any better than they do over at Annex, and audience sight lines have received a distinct inattention (and no matter where you sit some part of your anatomy will hurt later). What really puts this across is its purely randy, freewheeling spirit, and the cheery, straight-faced aplomb with which the troupe carts out a human-sized, stilettoed dung beetle and piano-playing praying mantis or indulges in a game of "Spank the Audience." In short, it's a $10 circus. And that's just fine.

 
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