Clowns are supposed to be silly, but at some point in modern times they started to seem square. They wore bulbous red noses, oversized shoes and inane expressions to match. They did the same old stupid stuff over and over again, as if trapped within a three-ring circus.

That unfunny situation started to change in the 1970s, as a generation of young clowns breathed new life into a tired form of entertainment. Combining the most ancient of clown traditions with the existential trappings of avant- garde theater, such clowns as Bill Irwin and Avner Eisenberg made it hip to wear baggy pants and take pratfalls.

Influenced by this so-called New Vaudeville movement, the Maryland-based theater company Theatricks combines ancient slapstick and contemporary metaphysics. Although the mixture of those two elements is sometimes more baffling than satisfying in Theatricks' new show at the Theatre Project, "Payatz!," there are enough zany moments to make their particular brand of lunacy worth your sane attention.

The setting for "Payatz!" has the self-reflexive quality of much New Vaudeville theater. Musty stage curtains, piles of suitcases and props and a couple of discarded theater seats make the stage seem like a backstage area that exists as a metaphorical locale more than an actual one.

A clownish ensemble sporting red clown noses and other clownlike apparel wanders around, suitcases in hand, as if in search of some unnamed thing of the meaning-of-life variety.

The actors -- Tom Dougherty, Elizabeth Furfaro, Mark Jaster and Tim Marrone -- embark on a series of brief sketches that mostly concern that venerable clown theme of the lowly individual contending with the mysterious physical universe.

Marrone, for instance, has a skit in which he tries to capture a spotlight that keeps just ahead of him on an otherwise darkened stage. In another skit, Furfaro comes on dressed as a frumpy woman who has a through-the-looking-glass experience when she passes through a mirror and suddenly notices the real audience out there watching her.

When the four clowns are not contending with these inexplicable whims of their stage world, they joust with each other. Jaster and Dougherty come out in one scene carrying a violin and a bass, respectively, and this hilariously structured vignette involves an escalating conflict over their instruments and chairs.

Because the dialogue in "Payatz!" rarely extends beyond primal grunts and Sid Caesar-ish gibberish, pantomime conveys most of the action. Also fleshing out scenes is on-stage composer, performer and sound designer Jon Perry, who has a plink and a plunk for every occasion.

"Payatz!" has a lot going for it but wears out its welcome in the course of 90 intermissionless minutes. Some skits are too short to register, other skits are redundant, and the overall thematic unity is shaky. Co-directors Tony Tsendeas and Tom Dougherty and the others who collaborated with them on this new piece need to do some serious editing and reshaping to ensure that our smiles don't turn to frowns.


Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, with a 3 p.m. matinee tomorrow; through May 3

Tickets: $14; $10 for senior; $8 for students and Theatre Project members

Call: 410-752-8558

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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