Theatre on Fire’s ‘Clown Bar’ A Barrel of Laughs (4 Stars)

‘Clown Bar’ – Written by  Adam Szymkowicz. Directed by Darren Evans. Presented by Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Charlestown, Fri-Sat. Nights through October 24th.

It’s been a rough couple of decades for clowns. Once synonymous with laughter, the appearance of a clown in a movie now brings a sense of dread – usually followed by psychological terror and/or gallons of spurting blood. We probably have John Wayne Gacy to thank for the transformation of the clown persona from fun-loving Bozo to murdering sociopath, but in any event, clowns just ain’t what they used to be. And while Theatre on Fire’s ‘Clown Bar’ doesn’t do anything to resuscitate that forgotten image, at least the killer clowns in this production return to their primary purpose – making us laugh. And there’s plenty of laughs in this cabaret-style one-act now running at the Charlestown Working Theater.

‘Clown Bar’ is sort of a mashup of “Shakes the Clown” and “The Big Sleep”, as detective Happy Mahoney tries to solve the murder of his younger brother Timmy with the help (or hindrance) of the patrons at the title Clown Bar. For Happy (an effective Christopher Sherwood Davis), the assignment means a return to his old stomping grounds and an opening of old wounds. Happy traded in his seltzer bottle and oversized clown shoes for a badge and a gun after a nasty breakup with his flame, Blinky Fatale, so there’s plenty of emotional burdens to be dealt with in addition to solving the case. And not all of his old “friends” are happy to see him.

Younger brother Timmy was a clown whose clown crime was not being funny, so he turned to dope in an effort to ease that pain. We see Timmy’s demise told in flashback, from Happy’s departure (where he cautions Timmy not to “get involved in that underground clown world” of gangsters and hookers), to his slide into addiction, to becoming a hit man for Bobo, the evil head clown who owns the bar. This offbeat tale is made even weirder by the setting for the play. Audience members receive red clown noses in place of tickets (which they are encouraged to wear), and the theater space has been transformed into a nightclub/bar complete with a clown bartender who serves clown-themed drinks. The clowns mingle with the audience before the performance, which opens with MC Dusty the Clown crooning a sad clown-themed number, “The Clowns Have All Gone Home”.

There are the usual noir characters, including hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Petunia (played wonderfully by Annie Hochheiser); a number of Bobo’s clown henchman who seem only too eager to knock off Happy themselves, and of course, the gal who done him wrong – sexpot Blinky (Emma Goodman). The show is loaded with classic noir dialogue – with a clown twist. So when Happy tells Blinky that he’s given up the clown life to be a regular guy, she tells him, “No one ever stops being a clown… You may look like them, but your heart is a clown heart. I can hear it from here,” she says as she honks out a heartbeat on a horn. The blend of noir and clownspeak works really well together, so we get lines like, “Gimme a drink – and make it funny” delivered as dry as bathtub gin martini.

The action is broken up by some clever serenades by Dusty (Chris Wagner, who does a great job as the lounge lizard) which are as amusing as any of the lines in the show. This is a really fun night out, and you can’t beat the sliding scale price offered by Theatre on Fire from $0-$20 bucks. For more info, go to: