Buffoon. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Often, reading plays is an act of filling in the blanks, an act that requires ample imagination to colour in context and missing aspects of a production, from sets to lighting to bodies in space on stage. It’s extremely rare to come across a playtext that carries with it the layers of a full theatre production and that makes the experience of the live, in-person play accessible to the reader. Incredibly, my experience of reading Buffoon by Anosh Irani did just that.
Felix is fascinating. We first meet the play’s protagonist in a prison visiting room. This opening image coupled with the first few lines of dialogue effortlessly prompts the essential driving questions for the rest of the play: How did Felix end up in prison? Does he deserve to be locked up? Why does he have white chalk on his face? Who does he think is the audience, to whom he speaks directly? “Look, I don’t really know why you’re here. I mean, I do, kind of. To be honest, I don’t have much to say. I don’t want to say anything, but now that you’re here, I guess I do owe you some sort of . . . transmission. Where do I begin?” (4 ellipsis original). In fewer than 75 pages, Irani’s buffoon Felix reveals the story of his remarkable life in the circus. Beginning from the very day he was born, Felix introduces us to his high-flying, trapeze artist parents: The Great Frank and The Flying Olga. He then spins a tight and complex tale of coming-of-age, falling in love, abandonment, finding our life’s purpose, tragedy, and the ways in which our pasts pull us from behind.
In the stage production of Buffoon, this is all achieved by one performer on stage. Some of my favourite theatre-going experiences have been watching one-person plays. When a performer is in the throes of solo play, if all is going well, it can be mesmerizing to watch the actor juggle multiple characters in various settings with just their body as the story’s main instrument. In this way, solo productions often require great feats of athletic prowess. Capturing this experience for a play reader is quite difficult, but this was the exact experience I had while reading Buffoon.
As I was reading, I found it impossible to forget that one actor was performing this piece entirely by themselves on stage. I easily imagined an actor transforming from character to character as I read on. Why this is the case, I’m still working out, but I have a few theories. Perhaps it’s the skilful way that the play moves between showing and telling, between action and description. One moment, the actor plays Felix’s caretaker, Smile. Another moment, he is Felix’s mother Olga, then Felix responding to Olga, then Felix offering an inner monologue that describes the action of the rest of the scene as if it happened years ago.
Perhaps I was able to see the actor so clearly because the story is also about Felix becoming a performer. “I am a buffoon,” he eventually discovers (46). It’s not only the actor but also Felix who plays multiple roles. He is in fact all of these characters, and they are all part of him. Half the fun for the reader is trying to find out why Felix needs to tell this story to us. How did these characters get themselves inside of him?
You can also feel Felix’s disposition towards each character as he performs them. Felix often plays them up as larger-than-life, hilarious stereotypes, which makes the precious, rare moments of humanity all the sweeter when they unexpectedly seep in. One particularly hilarious moment of rare tenderness comes from Felix’s mother Olga, who speaks in a thick Russian accent and always has a cigarette dangling from her mouth. When she sees that Felix is struggling with love, she tells him, “Love is for puppy. You can love puppy forever. But human . . . just like cigarette smoke. My first cigarette, I cough, cough, cough. After some time, I get used to smoke. I don’t cough anymore. Same with love. One day there is no hate left. That is the end of love. You feel . . . nothing” (24 ellipses original. As these lines demonstrate, the play teeters masterfully on that tightrope edge somewhere between comedy and tragedy. As the clown is made before us, we also bear witness to what Felix’s chalk mask hides. At one point Aja, Felix’s love interest, says to him, “Felix, everything isn’t a joke,” to which he replies, “Of course it is. If it isn’t a joke, then it’s life. And I don’t do life” (66).
There are also important decolonial themes embedded within the story. These themes are crucial to its final few pages. Without giving too much away, the play asks the reader to consider aspects of identity that are lost or forcibly changed through immigration. This is one part of the play that makes it a significant piece of theatre in Canada today.
Buffoon is another intelligent and thoughtful play from critically acclaimed writer Anosh Irani. Felix (and all the characters who live inside him) invite readers to consider the many masks that we wear every day and the very serious business of being a clown.
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