Heather Marie Annis (left) and Amy Lee earn laughs and tears.
OF MICE AND MORRO AND JASP by Heather Marie Annis, Byron La vio lette and Amy Lee (U.N.I.T. Productions). At Factory Studio (125 Bathurst). Runs to February 8. $25, stu/srs $20. 416-504-9971. See listings. Rating: NNNNN
Artists often don't get sufficient respect or remuneration for their work, especially in a hard-nosed economy that keeps cutting arts grants.
Just look at clown sisters Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee), forced to panhandle and, when things don't improve, stage their unique version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. It's richer than their earlier works, including the entertaining Go Bake Yourself and Go Wild.
A 2012 Fringe hit, Of Mice And Morro And Jasp now has more space to breathe without time constraints, and the duo, directed by co-creator Byron Laviolette, expertly wring laughs and tears from the material.
Laughs from Steinbeck's tragic Great-Depression-set tale? In that book, the actions of friends Lennie and George, the former impetuous and childlike, the latter worldly and sharp, eventually lead to death and despair.
As rewritten by impulsive Morro and controlling Jasp using echoes of Shakespeare, Casablanca and Gone With The Wind, the two are employed by a carnival rather than a farm, but the situation is the same: life is tough, they hope to retire to a farm with bunnies, Morro unintentionally kills a dog and then the strongman's wife.
What's to be done in their play-within-a-play? Must Jasp again clean up Morro's messes and follow Steinbeck's sad denouement?
Lee and Annis share not only a special chemistry but also a strong connection with their audience. As in any good clown show, the give-and-take between viewers and performers involves more than breaking the fourth wall; here, three audience members become part of the action.
But the actors go beyond laughs with this material, which feels uncomfortable and darker than the usual clown show. They handle it expertly: just watch their faces as things go from worse to worst and try to stop a tear of your own from welling up as they face what seems like a hopeless situation.
Still, these are characters (and performers) who can save a situation from the brink of disaster, so you can expect a happy ending. And rabbits...lots and lots of rabbits.