BUFFOON by Anosh Irani (Tarragon Theatre). At Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Runs to December 15. $29-$65. 416-531-1827, tarragontheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
A circus-noir monodrama that traces a clown’s tragicomic life of abandonment and perdition, this latest play from Vancouver novelist/dramatist Anosh Irani possesses intrigue and poetic imagery, yet it leans heavily on genre clichés, one-note characters and a rushed twist ending.
However, in the hands of interpreters as inspired as director Richard Rose, lighting designer Jason Hand, sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne and, most especially, actor Anand Rajaram, Buffoon’s debut production becomes a paragon of tonal control and captivating solo storytelling.
His body clad in a grey boilersuit and his face frosted with white make-up, Felix greets us with an arresting blend of nervousness and poise. The stage is bleakly spartan, bare except for a single chair, leaving Felix at once vulnerable and in complete command of his environment.
He begins his biography in magic-realist mode, describing his own birth, alternating between playing his mother, a trapeze artist, in the throes of labour and himself as a newborn, hesitating in his exit from the womb like an anxious gopher. Felix is right to be leery of entering this world: his parents are too self-absorbed to raise a child and, one by one, each of his guardians will leave him.
Rajaram’s shift from one character to another, from one accent to another – he repeatedly takes on the roles of Felix’s Russian mother, Scottish father and another circus employee who speaks in mellifluous English tones reminiscent of Boris Karloff – are seamless and nimble.
Rajaram’s bravura performance is doubtlessly informed by his work as a puppeteer: every crafted gesture is full-bodied, every emotional transition freighted with omen, every story point conveyed with sly showmanship. Rose has directed Rajaram to remain in a state of constant activity for Buffoon’s duration, yet the actor’s physical busyness – which, indeed, incorporates plenty of well-oiled buffoonery – rarely feels overindulgent.
Rajaram is superbly supported by Hand’s dramatic shifts in illumination, which, using the simplest elements possible, conjure the big top, the moon and stars, gloomy living spaces and the warm glow of youthful desire. The sound design, meanwhile, is steady yet unintrusive, sometimes recalling the eerie surges of Ryder Payne’s earlier work on another Tarragon chamber piece, The Small Room At The Top Of Stairs.
As noted above, Buffoon’s tricksy finale feels excessively compact, perhaps as a strategy for preventing us from thinking too much about whether we believe it. But it boasts a killer parting line, which Rajaram and his collaborators wisely discharge in a short, sharp shock before leaving us blindsided in the final, abrupt snap-to-black.