I saw and loved Of Mice and Morro and Jasp on Friday, but I wasn’t planning to write about it. I don’t really feel qualified to discuss clown shows — I have a lot of affection for the genre, but I don’t know enough about it to be more than a naive spectator. Take one of Morro and Jasp’s ongoing themes: the rights of clowns and the pain of being stereotyped. I think that’s really clever, and it features prominently in this most recent show of theirs as well: the exploitative job the two sisters have to sign up for requires them to dress up in outsized bow ties, squeaky shoes, and hilariously unfunny clown sleeves. Brilliant. But I have no idea whatsoever whether this is original, or whether they’re riffing on a long-standing tradition of the genre.

Luckily, the two actors behind Morro and Jasp, Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee, are also starring in a second production this year, Chris Craddock’s Pornstar, and that I do feel qualified to write about.

Craddock’s play is very, very funny. Telling the story of a Saskatchewan librarian turned unwitting amateur pornstar, her fundamentalist Christian mum (a Canadian-turned-American Sarah Palin supporter), her sister (unhappily in hell since her teenage suicide and currently attempting to escape), and a famous sex columnist who opens the librarian’s eyes to a world of erotic possibilities, Pornstar is a formally inventive satire, simply but very effectively staged, and tightly directed by Byron Laviolette. The play doesn’t try to be more than it is — delightfully, it steers clear of the tendencies that disappointed me so much in Help Yourself. That said, it has to be admitted that as satire goes, this one aims at a pretty soft target: making Teaparty bigotry look silly is not exactly a big challenge, and there is a sense here that Craddock is preaching rather vehemently to the choir. The one-liners keep coming, but the play pretty much affirms what the majority of its audience probably think and feel already — it makes fun of precisely the people and things you’d expect it to ridicule. And the overall structure is that of a fairy tale: the evil witch-mother is banished (to an institution), Jill gets her Jill, and the hell-damned sister gets to return as an angel. The hilarious descriptions of hell we get from Kate, the suicide sister, are one major exception to this slight sense of predictability; there, Craddock delivers some seriously off-the-wall material.

What makes the show memorable rather than just very entertaining and a little glib, are the performances. All four actors are excellent, but Annis and Lee still rise above the rest. (As a side note, it has been lovely to see so many powerful all-female casts this year, no matter how strong or weak the scripts they were performing.)

So let me try to pin down what I find so admirable about their work. Here, as in their Morro and Jasp shows, they turn figures that might otherwise be merely funny — conduits for clever lines, bodies performing amusing actions, two-dimensional personifications of the absurd (what after all is more clichéd, if hilariously so, than an actual librarian starring in a sex tape?) — into characters that experience the farce they inhabit as reality, if not as tragedy. They both completely own their characters, vocally and physically, and the precision of their performance gives those characters a bodily presence, an undeniable actuality, that allows — or compels — the audience to see them as emotionally complex as well, and to respond to them in emotionally complex ways, with laughter, with sympathy, with tears. Annis’s voice captured Kate’s teenage inflections, with just a hint of vocal fry and the occasional bits of uptalk; the body she gave her character, slightly gawky, slightly awkward, a frame whose adult proportions and ranginess Kate hasn’t quite grow into yet (and now, never will), conveyed a sense of vulnerability well before I noticed its battered and bruised state, and conjured the pathos of mere potential, of a future life cut short. If there’s quite a bit of Morro in her Kate, little of Jasp remains in Lee’s Esther (the librarian); and if Kate was necessarily frozen in time, Lee’s work on Esther seemed to be all about physical development, tracing a trajectory from her initial prim, neatly dressed figure scurrying downstage with prim, controlled little steps, to the short-skirted begirlfriended porn-prize-winner dancing with abandon and loose hair. At the same time, within that trajectory, Lee switches back and forth between the two Esthers with remarkable precision and speed — first, when prim Esther reenacts her sex tape, flashing rapidly between her rigid librarian and amateur pornstar selves; later, when confronting her controlling mother in her new, liberated persona, struggling not to slip back into her previous identity; and ultimately combining the two identities into a new amalgam in a scene of bittersweet nostalgia, packing up her apartment in Elbow, Saskatchewan, before moving to San Francisco and her new life.

The ending of the play may be pure fairy tale, but it’s grounded in the reality these actors manage to give their characters. I began by saying that I didn’t feel qualified to write about their other show, Of Mice and Morro and Jasp, but I do want to say something about that show’s ending, because it is such a magical, delightful, and surprising twist, utterly dependent on enthusiastic audience participation. That’s all I’ll say — the show is going on the road, and I really don’t want to spoil the surprise. But it tells you something about the importance of not just audience participation, but audience engagement in Annis and Lee’s work. In their own production, they rely so much on having a crowd that’s deeply invested both in their characters and in the success of the show that they stake the entire ending on that connection. Unsurprisingly, it works — and as it works, the performers turn the tables on us, their faces beaming with delight at our own delight.

Not much else to say, except that theatre doesn’t get much better than this: it’s real, and full of artifice, and belly-laugh funny, and sad, and all about what’s visible, and all about what’s only implied. It should never work, but when it does, it works like nothing else. Thanks for reminding me of all that, Morro and Jasp.

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