Within the first few minutes of rehearsal, Justin Rose suffers a mild concussion. It’s hard to tell that it’s happened, because Rose is stuffed into a burlap sack, has already been dropped a half-dozen harmless times and, well, he has a knife in his back and is supposed to be acting unconscious. It just looks like good acting when Rose’s partner, Kevin Wall, continues with the scene while Rose remains motionless.
“How’d that feel?” Wall eventually asks.
“I’m a little dizzy,” Rose says. “I was out for a minute there. I think I landed square on my head.”
Welcome to physical comedy, and the more specific subset of that genre, contemporary clowning, which is the backbone of Wall and Rose’s upcoming original theatrical production, I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry.
“For all of the times we’ve been rehearsing”—almost nightly preparation for the last eight months—“that’s the first time I’ve ever landed on my head,” Rose says later. “Usually it’s something different. I’ve sprained my ankle, fell wrong on my toe and then there are bruises up and down the entire side of my body. There was a stretch when I was wondering what was I doing in Missoula getting beat up all the time.”
What Rose and Wall are doing is honing their clowning skills and creating an ambitious piece of work that aims to meld elements of the modern circus, parts of vaudeville and just a hint of traditional theater to create a wholly unique evening of fringe performance art. The duo, who refer to themselves professionally as The Candidatos, describe the production as “part Marx Brothers, part Coen brothers, part Cirque du Soleil” and endorse its “evasive banter, acrobatic drunkenness, willful deception and no small amount of absurdity.” It’s hard to add to that promotional teasing other than to note that their rehearsal backs the stylized intrigue with razor-sharp dialogue and hilarious antics.
Wall’s character is a drunken sailor with a guilty conscience who speaks in French. Rose’s character is a failed actor, drama queen and reckless monologuist prone to suicide attempts who is, of course, crippled by having been stabbed. Both characters lie profusely. The story has the two partake in a silly series of events aimed at piecing together a blurry evening at the bar and acting under the presumption they must escape from the law.
“This whole thing started out of clowning and wanting to make a modern clown show,” says Wall. “Then, we wrote a script and tried to find as many different ways to incorporate our skills into the narrative. But we found that people were more and more interested in the plot, so we had to kind of scale back some things. Like, there was a duel in there at one point, but we had to take that out.”
This is serious business for both Wall and Rose. Before moving to Missoula almost two years ago, Wall studied the contemporary circus in Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship. During his 10 months abroad, Wall attended the National Circus School, watched countless shows and occasionally clipped photos of inspirational performers to send to Rose.
“I would get these pictures in the mail: one was a modern clown in black-and-white, a black tux and a white shirt and a white face, hanging from a chandelier,” says Rose. “This other one, my favorite, is a guy way back in the rafters of a circus—he’s in the round—and juggling with one foot in the air with a club [balanced] on it. And it came with a note from Kevin saying, ‘This is a dream I had of you.’ The encouragement was strong.”
Rose studied theater at the University of Iowa, where he met Wall and acted in several productions in his hometown of Des Moines. He also wrote, directed and starred in his own one-man show and directed another production for the New York Fringe Festival. After receiving Wall’s letters, he decided to move to Missoula to collaborate on I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry.
But the two didn’t stop studying once they started rehearsing. Each researched different influences, including Samuel Beckett, Buster Keaton and Eugene Ionesco, and reported their findings back to the other. They also started attending adult gymnastics classes at Bitterroot Gymnastics. (Tumblers from the group will open the show with an introduction to theatrical acrobatics.)
“We took things very seriously,” says Wall. “We literally sat down and figured out what tools we would need to make this concept work. Gymnastics was part of it.”
For all of the elements that I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry includes, the one constant is clowning. Wall is passionate when he speaks about his craft, and careful to explain that clowning, especially in a contemporary context, isn’t all red noses, rainbow-colored wigs and floppy shoes.
“There tends to be this idea that a person who falls on the stage is labeled a clown,” Wall says. “A clown is a character. How you develop that character is clowning. There’s a way a clown approaches vulnerability. There’s a way a clown approaches objects. There’s a self-awareness in a clown. There’s a way the clown uses the audience. It’s all about approach.”
Rose wasn’t classically trained like Wall, but he’s developed the skill through practice and lessons with his counterpart.
“The original idea was that I would create this project just for Justin,” says Wall. “I’ve always wanted to do it with him because he’s a very physical actor and he has this natural exuberance and…and…
Shifting back into character, Rose adds with a dramatic Shakespearian flourish: “We like to call it charm.”
As the concept of I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry is unveiled and the process of incorporating clowning is explained, there is one thing left unanswered by Wall and Rose: What, exactly, is the idea behind this odd professional name, The Candidatos?
Wall launches into an explanation both sincere and thoughtful. They hope to add more people to the group over time, and the idea for the production is constantly evolving (once it debuts in Missoula, I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry will travel to the Minneapolis and Philadelphia Fringe Festivals), so a name that encompasses more than the two creators made sense.
“With theater companies, it’s always the Such and Such Theater Company, and with dance companies it’s always The Such and Such Project. We wanted to avoid all that formality,” says Wall. “We wanted something reminiscent of a family name, like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and something vaguely official, and then something that preferably ended in a hard vowel just because I always thought that sounded very cool—all those Italian words that end in a hard vowel are cool. So, we came up with The Candidatos.”
It’s pointed out that the name doesn’t end in a hard vowel, but with an “s.” Wall is dead silent. He looks at the floor, then from the corner of his eye looks at Rose. All of a sudden he takes on his stage mannerisms—blameworthy and puppy-eyed, shrinking and vulnerable.
“I guess we’ve become our characters,” says Wall, laughing. “Just a pair of lying clowns.”
I’m Sorry & I’m Sorry debuts at Missoula Children’s Theatre with two shows on Sunday, June 5, at 2 and 7 PM. There is a third performance on Friday, June 10, at 8 PM. Tickets are $12, or $10 for students. Call 728-PLAY.