LA JOLLA — A tale of two clowns: the tall and lean Mump, with shiny blue tights, blue high-tops and a long blue horn on his head; and the short and squat Smoot, with baggy red shorts, red high-tops and two smaller red horns on his head. But it's not just the clothes and the bright red noses that distinguish Michael Kennard's Mump and John Turner's Smoot from Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and George and Gracie.
The Toronto-based team, now wreaking havoc in the West Coast premiere of "Mump & Smoot in 'Ferno' " at the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Forum, brings a fresh twist to the form by eliminating language as we know it. They speak gibberish--supposedly the language of Ummonian from the land of Ummo--but make themselves understood by gesture, inflection and emphasis.
They use this trick to distill their parts into the yin and yang of comedy in its purest form. They interact with an audience that understands them perfectly, whether Smoot is tricking one patron into throwing a ball at Mump, or Mump is solemnly soliciting another to take a wildly posed picture.
By speaking their nonsense with conviction and, yes, clarity, they offer a peek into the wonderland of how much we convey by body language, and the way we say something rather than what we actually say.
"Ferno" shows Mump and Smoot doing their shtick as they wait for an airplane. When the pilot doesn't show, Mump decides to fly the plane himself. They crash and experience dismemberment, death and life after death while conveying a panoply of complicated emotions--wrenching, desperate and loving as well as funny.
Under Karen Hines' expert direction, the show works so seamlessly, you can't see her hand at all. The emphasis is on the performers as it should be--as alone in the world as Beckett's Didi and Gogo.
And they play their parts to perfection. Kennard's towering Mump stares down Smoot and the audience with as much intimidation as ego itself, determined to control. Turner's ingenuous Smoot plays the mischievous id sneaking around Mump's directives with anarchic delight.
Campbell Manning's set design, chiefly a simple wooden crate of a plane on a black stage, reduces their world to basic elements. Michel Charbonneau's lighting, and a lot of smoke, takes the clowns up to the clouds and back. David Hines' music and sound effects underscore the mood of this funny yet thought-provoking show. Like "Children of Paradise," Mump & Smoot's "Ferno" makes you not only laugh, but also contemplate the marvelous complexities of existence. It shouldn't be missed.
\o7 * "Mump & Smoot in 'Ferno,' " La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Forum, UC San Diego, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 2. $19-$32. (619) 550-1010. Running time: 75 minutes.