It's not a good clown show if the clown doesn't make fun of the audience.
Michael O'Neill takes plenty of opportunities to play with his audience at his Fertile Ground 2017 world premier of William Shakespeare's Fools. He blesses late-comers with water from a wrinkled paper cup, and later, takes a slightly shaken audience member from her seat and sits her next to him as if they were on a blind date.
O'Neill's production is a three-part look into the history of fools and clowns built around the iconic characters that Shakespeare wrote. In an hour, O'Neill runs the gamut acting out scenes and characters from the low-status Bottom who turns from a man to an ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and ending with the highest status fool of all time, the prophetic and double-speaking equal to King Lear.
In between short dialogue from the Bard, O'Neill sports a huge red honker, an Alpine style hat that Zeppo Marx made famous and the tiniest vest possible. When he's in red nose mode, O'Neill is a divine imp whose teasing is somewhere between genius and idiot savant. Big top pipe organ music plays as he stumbles, falls flat on the ground and fails at drinking water from paper cups in a little slice of old circus magic.
O'Neill shares his belief that clowns are more celebrated outside the U.S. as deities who tell the truth, even when we can't. The clown is a classless and genderless character, who despite all the obstacles in his way still leaves any catastrophe with his original good nature in tact. They're a stand-in for humanity, the character we can laugh at in place of ourselves.
For people suffering from clown-phobia, William Shakespeare's Fools is an excellent first step towards healing.
Fertile Ground runs until Jan. 29. For the full schedule, go to fertilegroundpdx.org. $50 festival passes, individual tickets available.