Latest Sidemart offering delves into a famous clown's encounter with Hitler
Alain Goulem admits that as a child clowns scared him shitless. On his first visit to the circus, their buffoonery sent him screaming from the big top. However, over the years, the actor became fascinated by the skill behind the red noses and oversized footwear. He studied the art form and applied it to everything from Shakespeare to "a really gross adult clown" named Cocko.
"I think that [clowning] allows for extremes and for really snap transitions," he explains. "Someone goes from angry to elated in a way that’s just boom, fast. I find it illuminating."
In Oooo!, the latest production by Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, he’s putting his clowning talents in the spotlight as the legendary Charlie Rivel, one of Europe’s most famous performers of the mid-20th century. Written by the Catalan playwright Gerard Vázquez, the show recreates the real-life encounter between Rivel and Adolf Hitler in WWII-era Germany. At first blinded by his success, Goulem’s character slowly confronts the Nazi atrocities taking place around him.
"The strongest theme for me is how your own personal comfort can cloud political tragedies," the actor says. "For me, this character of Charlie sees himself as apolitical, as outside the larger problems to the point that he’s ignoring the trains leaving Berlin for Auschwitz and Dachau."
An A-list cast joins Goulem to tell a story that unfolds on various levels of reality: Rivel’s onstage performance, his offstage relationship with a fawning young soldier, and a sort of alternate realm with a miniature version of himself (played by Goulem’s 11-year-old son Tobias).
The combination of clowning and introspection in Oooo! feels strangely appropriate. After all, clowns are the funhouse mirror personified. They can be frightening because they bring humanity’s foibles to life and make them dance. Goulem hopes the tempestuous ride wakes people up like a face full of water from a squirting boutonnière.
"I think we live very close to desperate hours, with the wars, our approach to fossil fuels. I think it’s important for people to say ‘We’re all responsible.’ And I’m sure if we do avoid some kind of cataclysmic global disaster that there’s going to be all kinds of people who say they were in the resistance, just like everybody in France was in the resistance, right?"
At Segal Centre for Performing Arts (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine), Sept. 13-21