Just Clowning 

Cirque Do Somethin' is an intimate performance that'll captivate your tykes.

How many ways can you put on a hat? Unique Derique, clown and body percussionist, can put on a hat repeatedly without doing it the same way twice. Rolling it up his arm, throwing it into the air and catching it on his head, bouncing it using his nose and lips, the agile (and often airborne) Derique McGee is a menace to the repose of headwear everywhere. Paired with the wild-haired, woebegone Mr. YooWho (Moshe Cohen), it's not just hats but noses, trash bags, yoga, and children from the audience who get the full clown treatment in the Marsh Berkeley's production of Cirque Do Somethin'. Although the full routine with both men juggling five hats is pretty amazing all by itself.

The two men couldn't be more different, which follows a basic rule of good clown pairing: go for contrast. Derique is tall, graceful, and elegant despite the silly fake glasses held tight to his head by an elastic strap. Mr. YooWho is short and rumpled, with tufts of perfect mad scientist hair stuck to either side of his head, and while he's really quite agile, he plays at being old and crusty, with exaggerated grunts and wheezes as he climbs on and off the stage. Derique is an accomplished hambone player ("hamboning" or "patting Juba" is body percussion developed by African slaves denied their drums); Mr. YooWho wields a ukulele. Derique's characters are big and flamboyant; Mr. YooWho's are subtler and more introspective.

The combination yields an hour that enchants children while keeping their adult minders engaged. And there is no holiday content whatsoever -- an important side benefit for anyone set on waging that War on Christmas that Pat Robertson and Fox' John Gibson are so worked up about. No Christmas music, no dancing dreidels, no Dickensian urchins lugging giant turkeys. Just good clean clowning, set off by supersimple props, lighting, and makeup. Nothing of its gigantic, spectacular namesake about it, or of the three-ring extravaganzas where you're usually sitting too high to see what's going on. No obscure French-Canadian storylines, nobody being fired from a cannon, no animals, no fright wigs. Just a return to pure, skilled clowning, in an small space where you can see the performers sweat and they can interact with every kid in the audience if it pleases them.

Of course, some of it may go right over children's heads -- not because it's dirty, but because it relates adult experiences. "Five-Minute Yoga in a Suit" is a good example. Derique wakes up to a radio program of the same name meant for those "on the go-go-go to the top!" He wrestles his way through a routine meant to get the practitioner awake, dressed, and yogafied in five minutes, complete with a shoulder stand using a briefcase as a support. It's hilarious for anyone who has ever tried to follow what appear to be contradictory directions from a yoga teacher; "release the arms and press up through your sticky mat" left the man next to me completely helpless. By the same token, Mr. YooWho has a very subtle routine with a gigantic fake flower that appears to be about a shy person looking for love, but it's so quiet and understated (and a bit long) that it might lose some of the more restless.

Quiet and understated don't apply to the other bits, though, like Cohen's turn at flamenco ukulele (yes, it is possible) and his sensuous and mysterious Dance of the Plastic Trash Bags. He also has a musical interlude with two flexible tubes that owes its choreography to poi spinning, the fire dancing that employs flaming wicks on the ends of two long chains. Anyone who's tried to spin poi will tell you that it's harder than it looks and comes with serious blisters; like everything else in the show, Cohen does a hard thing smoothly and well. Which both men do with a minimum of dialogue; at first they just make nonsense vocalizations, and reserve intelligible speech for instructing their child volunteers. Eventually there's a little conversation, but the two move so well together that speech is barely necessary to get the point across. It becomes clear how Cohen has been able to take his shtick to 27 countries (a member of Clowns Without Borders, he just returned from Nepal, where he performed with Spanish circus people in Bhutanese refugee camps); "goofy" can transcend language and culture.

Meanwhile Derique, who used to host a children's show on KQED, is all about hamboning, which shares roots with tapdancing and beatboxing. But he saves that for near the very end, in a duet that also involves a ukulele and a rubber chicken. Once he gets started on the body percussion, though, it's a beautiful thing, and watching Mr. YooWho gamely play along for a little while before gracefully yielding the stage is a neat moment. Overall there's a good-natured competition set up at the very beginning which comes to a head at the end when the two men, one on a tall unicycle, the other on a short bicycle, finally have it out with the aid of half a dozen juggling pins.

It's good for kids to see this kind of thing in an intimate setting like this, where the performers are too close to the audience for their antics to be written off as tricks or special effects. Other than one boy who kept accidentally-on-purpose falling off his chair, the kids at the performance I saw were spellbound. Somethin' is a fun, guiltless little something for the holiday season for kids and their adults.


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