Clown Bar: Where Everybody Knows Your Name is Twinkles

By Sam Pynes

Thursday December 2, 2021 7:30PM

It’s closing time for the semester at Theatrix as Clown Bar opens at the Lab Theatre, the 120-seat black box sister to the venerable Howell Theatre in the Temple Building at UNL. Clown Bar functions as a sometimes serious, sometimes silly send-up of the noir gangster sub-genre, dressed up in clown makeup. Within the old noir trope of whether a person can really leave their past behind lies the question of whether passion in the pursuit of art can ever overcome mediocrity.

People connect to drama, however it is clothed, and very quickly an audience will accept a Bobo and Popo, not as whimsical sounds, but as mysteriously menacing mob bosses and frighteningly unhinged thumbreakers. This makes it even more jarring than usual when little bang signs come out of the end of their guns. Maybe it’s because the image of the sad and jaded clown has so far seeped into the culture that it is a real feat to pull off a whimsical one.

The strange mix of tones must be purposefully uncomfortable: not only are these jaded characters in a jaded world, but a number of the jokes themselves edge into grossness. But still, sometimes you can’t help but laugh at these characters’ antics even as you feel badly for them. 

I think I’m correct in referring to this as a tragicomedy, though the lines between tragicomedy and dark comedy have always been a bit blurry for me. Maybe the difference is that in a dark comedy things only seem dark, as in the Addams Family’s morbid humor, while a tragicomedy is actually bitterly tragic, with comedic elements providing either a momentary relief, or a general acknowledgement of the sheer absurdity of the sad situation. This play is certainly a tragedy, and while occasionally funny, its moments of lightness are themselves tinged with hollow laughter. I’m not sure it goes quite as far as anti-humor, but it does have moments of absurdism. The balance between serious drama and deadly absurdity is tricky, and I got the sense from the audience that they weren’t always sure what to feel about these dramatic swings in tone, but they were grateful to relieve the tension with laughter. 

Happy Mahoney (Brett Gaffney) is the un-happy detective of the noir, returning to his clown roots and associations to uncover his brother’s killer. Gaffney is primarily the straight-man to the wackiness and plays his part with conviction. 

The brother, Timmy, (Seamus Doyle) features throughout in interspersed flashbacks and Doyle gives his failing-clown-turned-addict believable pathos. I got some flavors of Fredo Corleone to Gaffney’s Mikey.

Dusty (Artistic Director Philip Crawford) sings bawdy songs throughout the play and does the best approximation of a real clown that can’t put the red nose aside, even in the clown bar. He got the most consistent laughs with his wonderful timing and the contrast between his squeaky aww-shucks speaking voice and his singing baritone.

Giggles (Jackson Wells) and Shotgun McGhee (Dane DeTar) are the bar’s regulars and add some consistent chaos, along with Twinkles (Trace Harre). Giggles provides the signposts through the play by reminding the patrons of the bar’s “rules:”

  1. There are no rules
  2. You better not try nothing
  3. Don’t get in my business
  4. Don’t say I didn’t warn you
  5. The past is the past

Bobo (Daniel Hernandez) and Popo (Mon Darter) are downright scary as the kingpins of this seedy world. If you are at all afraid of clowns, these two will feature heavily in your next nightmare.

Petunia (Caroline Friend) mans the bar, and offers other services, as Blinky Fatale (Aurora Villarreal) is Bobo’s sympathetic side piece whose history with Happy goes beyond her provocative table-dancing.

The show is a very digestible 75 minutes, but I did find myself wondering if there could have been some tightening of the pace in parts. There are two general signposting mechanisms in the show: the rules of the bar, and the continuing flashback of what happened to the dead brother. Overall these worked well, and some of the dramatic pauses were well-earned, but in moments the pace of the show was arrested without added impact.

It is nice to see some variety in the local theatre scene, and this is certainly a show that you are not likely to see performed at another Lincoln-area theater. While I generally prefer the more family-friendly fare, which this is not, variety is the spice that expands our horizons, and student theatre is a great space to explore.

If you go: Clown Bar runs Thursday December 2nd to Saturday December 4th at 7:30 pm, and Sunday December 5th at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $5 for students and $7 for general admission, and they can be bought online at (you must log in or create an account to view the tickets) or cash-only at the door.

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless. Current Managing Editor of Appearing Locally.

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