Guerra: A Clown Play starts at a huge disadvantage for getting an audience, namely, that the word ‘clown’ is in the title. Roger Ebert once wrote, “Everyone hates clowns almost as much as they hate mimes.” And, at least when it comes to America, he was right. When I think clowns, I do not think funny. I think awkward birthday parties, Stephen King nightmares, and a grinning mascot telling me of over a billion hamburgers sold. To not only advertise that your show has clowns, but that it’s all clowns, is a tough sell in the U.S. In America, clowns just ain’t funny.
Thankfully for all parties concerned, Guerra is not an American production, but a self described “military farce from Mexico with Love.” It’s a three performer 55 minute barrage of sketch, mime, pratfalls, paper airplane throwing and gags, gags gags. And lord, is it funny.
The barest sketch of a plot involves an unnamed country, where a war is about to start for reasons unknown. A general with a mighty moustache and wonderfully expressive eyebrows (Artus Chavez) runs a small office with the help of his always marching assistant (Fernando Cordova). The general is never named, and the assistant goes by many names, so that he’s everyman, I suppose. After some initial very funny business about raising the flag, the phone rings and they have their orders: war is coming and they need to get new recruits. Then the house lights go up.
There are few things that create more dread in my heart than when the house lights go up in a show. I have only seen two shows make this idea work (Putnam Counting Spelling Bee and One Man Two Guvnors), and every other time I see it, it achieves nothing but shattering the world that the actors work so hard to create But Guerra throws a curveball: the general doesn't ask for a volunteer, instead he yells, “Look under your seats! Whoever finds the loaded gun, you have won the lottery!” He wasn’t joking. There was a gun under one of our seats, and that person was hauled onstage.
Once the 'recruit' is drafted, the play goes from silly to sillier, and weird to weirder. A third clown (Madeline Sierra) joins the group as a scared soldier who really, really, really doesn't want to go to war. Every time she comes back on stage, she has more wounds and awful stories to tell. It may sound grim, but somehow it all works. Every time you fear they may be going down a comedy road of diminishing returns, they prove you wrong. At one point, the office is under attack, and the general barks at his underling, “Get me my iPod!” He then puts on his headphones and blocks out the world, preferring a private dance party to the bombardment. Of course, eventually his battery runs out, and he’s forced to deal with the fact that they’re losing the war.
In a sense, it’s hard to review a comedy without just listing the gags that worked, so I will instead say that each of the three performers is an expert at what they do. Chavez functions as the Groucho of the group, getting away with murder by simply giving an audience member a look and a raised eyebrow. Cordova is the closest thing to the mime, in complete control of his body and voice (he creates many of the sound effects with his mouth) as he takes each bit about as far as he can. Sierra has arguably the hardest task, as we are simultaneously supposed to empathize with her fear as the new recruit but also laugh at her hardship. She proves just as game as her compatriots, however, throwing herself into the role with unlimited energy and killer timing.
There isn’t much of a political aim to the show (other than a poignant moment about soldiers returning home), nor are they skewering any particular country or dictator. They are more concerned with laugher over symbolism, which may be why it only runs 55 minutes. Once all the gags have been exhausted, it’s over. That’s not a bad thing. How many comedies are brave enough to just use their best material, and then pack it in?
Guerra proves, if nothing else, that clowns aren’t the problem, the American stereotype of clown is. From now on, all our clowns should come from other countries. We’ve been doing it wrong.