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'Buffo' elevates the art of the clown

March 08, 2004|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

Ageless buffoonery blew into Cal State L.A. over the weekend when "Buffo" took the State Playhouse stage for a two-night stand. The Moliere Award-winning solo show by internationally celebrated clinician and clown Howard Buten offered up a sweet-hearted swirl of existential tomfoolery and sage understanding.

Detroit native Buten's elfin demeanor disguises an imposing polymath: self-taught ventriloquist by 8, published poet by 12, jazz arranger by 16. He also writes novels; his fifth, 1981's "Burt," failed to ignite American readers, but the French devoured it. The loss-of-innocence story has become a minor classic, witnessed by the success of its recent reissue as "When I Was Five I Killed Myself."

Buten's artistic gifts run concurrent with a lifelong interest in medicine and areas of children's development. After leaving the University of Michigan to enroll at Florida's Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Buten earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Santa Barbara's Fielding Institute in 1986. The memoirs of Swiss clown Grock inspired Buten's character Buffo, after the Italian word for comic player. His creation of the experimental Koschise Center served as a pilot for the Adam Shelton Center for autistic studies, established in 1997. The following year, "Buffo" won the Moliere, France's equivalent of the Tony Award.

On its surface, "Buffo" is postmodern commedia dell'arte, analogous to Ennio Marchetto's pop culture parodies. Marcel Marceau's immortal Bip pops up too, as do silent film's Harry Langdon, Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean, and Bill Irwin's career. What sets Buten's work apart is the primal subtext of its mix of pantomime, illusion, musical jokes and hilarious monosyllabic vocabulary. These aspects (and his magical, mercurial mug) play atop the inner ache of childhood with unerring artistry.

As fate, luck and/or gravity ever thwart Buffo's aims, a rubber chicken, an opaque Toastmaster's joke and sleight-of-hand kerchief tactics gain in comic punch. "Oh" and "Uh-oh" -- among the few intelligible words in his auditory arsenal -- recur with increasing exponential uproar. Slapstick isn't slighted either. There's a Gumby-like duel with an unwilling microphone, and nonstop assaults from custodial supplies.

Profound emotional notes emerge in the quiet that punctuates the festivities, at times approaching Harpo Marx. A tickling gag involving mixed-up mike plugs finishes on a reedy vocal reading of "Di Provenza il mar" from Verdi's "La Traviata" that carries deep, oblique pathos.

Perhaps most memorable is Buffo's romance with a cello. Their cracked courtship results in him overseeing the birth of a tiny violin. This lunacy crashes with a mortal stroke that recalls Emmett Kelly, only to be reversed in a sublime moment. At Friday's performance, the crowd moaned in despair, then cheered like second-graders at recess.

This timeless naif locates the id of everyone's inner kid, in the current disaffected climate a gift beyond value. Such skill and boundary-breaking appeal typifies Buten's special genius, making "Buffo" a boffo encounter.

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