The Art of Building a Bunker:
no easy answers but lots of laughs
by Drew Rowsome
Clowns, at their best, are social satirists and reveal truths that are often uncomfortable. Theatre, at its best, entertains while also revealing truths that can be unsettling. The Art of Building a Bunker places a stellar clown, Adam Lazarus, in a highly theatrical setting and the fusion aims to make the audience squirm while it laughs. Though a seamless fusion proves elusive, there are laughs galore and the audience's consciences and morality are suitably needled.
Billed as, "A play about sensitivity training that is anything but sensitive," The Art of Building a Bunker follows everyman Elvis as he endures a week-long seminar - on which his job and future depend - on the theme, "Sensitivity is the lubricant of our society." Lazarus plays, as well as Elvis, all the attendees and the instructor/facilitator, and each character is subtly but indelibly delineated. A dialogue between Elvis and the instructor is breathtakingly funny, not only from the escalating comedy of the content ,but also because of the giddy joy of watching Lazarus use only his facial expressions to let us know who is talking and what they are feeling.
A lot of the satire mocks the seminar content and its hilarious, and woefully familiar, new-agey metaphors. The co-option of native spirituality gets ribbed mercilessly and a visual/aural whirling dervish demonstration using a single prop and Lazarus' sound effects, reduces the audience to helpless laughter. The Art of Building a Bunker is seemingly a satire of political correctness, so far so good, until Elvis, who we have been lead to root for, and even the facilitator start revealing the racism and anger just beneath the surface of their personalities. From there on in it is every person for themselves as the East Indian spouts vulgar and racist jokes, Elvis' status as a Jew becomes an excuse for xenophobia, and the fey facilitator turns on the gay member of the group. The mood flip flops between knowing laughter at another's expense, and lacerating guilt for one's own complicity: it is a delicious state of unbalance.
Lazarus is extraordinarily gifted at getting laughs. His eyes pop and twinkle, each character has an individual voice and physicality, and when stripped to his underwear he viciously undercuts his natural sex appeal in the name of comedy. And that is where the art of The Art of Building a Bunker stumbles. While each set piece is a gem, the overall arc is confused and contradictory, which undercuts the big finale. Lazarus bites into the words and spits venom with abandon which should have had the audience in tears of laughter and outrage, but instead falls flat. Lazarus and co-creator Guillermo Verdecchia are both known for their clown work and they let it interfere with the theatricality. The wild tonal shifts and potpourri of styles often seem to be there simply to get in another sight gag. While the laughs are infectious and solid, the themes get lost.
Poor Elvis is suffering from alienation. His litany of the current horrors of the world make that bluntly clear and we understand and share his fears. He stands alone on a stark stage that comes alive thanks to the dramatic lighting by Michelle Ramsay and a rich sonic landscape courtesy of Richard Feren. Elvis' angst and isolation draw us in, make us collaborators, and then he repels before seducing again. The motivation for molesting a Portuguese chicken is questionable if horrifyingly hilarious, but Lazarus sold it and the audience ate it up while gagging.
The Art of Building a Bunker is not as shocking or outrageous as it wants to be (though two jokes in succession - one involving Calgarians and the other black Jews - pushed the limit of what a mainstream theatre audience can handle: we all laughed and we were all ashamed of laughing) but Lazarus gets under our skin and settles there. Political correctness is complicated and my reactions to The Art of Building a Bunker are likewise complicated: while laughing heartily I also had to justify my doing so, suck in my complacent superiority and question my beliefs. When a clown can provoke that reaction, while also inducing hearty laughter, a play can be forgiven a few lapses of coherence.
The Art of Building a Bunker continues until Sun, Nov 2 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca