Anand Rajaram gives one of the most remarkable performances of the season in Anosh Irani’s one-man play Buffoon. Vancouver-based Irani is an esteemed novelist-playwright, and, perhaps, because he has a foot in both literary camps, he is able to fashion such deep characterizations for both page and stage. Irani has poured all his considerable skill into crafting a compelling portrait of Felix the clown in words, giving Rajaram the tools he needs to create a brilliant acting solo turn.
The cinderblock walls of the Tarragon Extra Space have been painted grey, with only a neon bar of light at mid height. There is one grey metal chair, centre stage. Rajaram, wearing a grey coverall and looking decidedly unkempt, enters backwards through a door, and as he slowly turns around, we see that his face is painted white. He then makes his way to the chair, sits down, and, both shyly and nervously, looks the audience over. That deliberately halting opening alerts us to the fact that director Richard Rose has worked with the actor in a very calculating way. Every physical movement has been planned down to the last blink of the eyes. And it is those eyes, so bright, so expressive, that stand out through the performance. Every moment Rajaram is on stage, he captures our full attention. His performance as Felix is absolutely riveting.
The play consists of Felix talking about his life and the people who surround him. Like all clowns, Felix’s story is a sad one, and right from the start he points to the ironic line by Mark Twain – “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why”. Felix was born into the circus, the son of trapeze artists, The Flying Olga and The Amazing Frank, but through both accident and design, he loses them both. He is raised by a surrogate father, Ishmael the ticket seller, whom the young boy calls Smile. The first book that Smile gives Flicks (as he calls Felix) to read is, not surprisingly, Moby Dick. A major part of Felix’s tale of woe concerns his love affair with Aja, the adopted daughter of the seamstress Mary, and his rival for her affections, the tent-maker’s son. The marvel of Irani’s script is just how much humour, cynical though it may be, he has put into Felix’s storytelling. Throughout the show, Felix makes us laugh and he makes us cry. There is a surprise ending of sorts, but that just gilds the lily. The main thing is the unforgettable character of Felix the clown.
Rajaram impersonates all the characters with unbelievable clarity, moving seamlessly from one to the other. The physicality for each person has clearly been very carefully worked out with director Rose, be it the delicate, ultra feminine Olga, or the stately Smile, or the winsome Aja. And then there is Rajaram’s mastery of accents – Olga is Russian, Frank is Scottish, Smile is plumy English, Mary is Irish. Rose has Rajaram move off the chair when necessary, but then, only with a clear purpose. Just on a technical note, between the voice and physicality, the picture of Felix, from boy to man, that Rajaram and Rose have built together, is acting perfection.
The theatrical values of the show are equally astute, particularly the lighting of Jason Hand and the sound design of Thomas Ryder Payne. When Felix is in storytelling mode, the neon lights snap on presenting a stark and cold stage picture. When Felix is in his past, Hand uses a riot of colour to transform those dull grey cinder blocks into a warm glow, creating a parade of many moods. He also cunningly works in light and shadow. For his part, Payne mixes together circus music, audience applause, and various sound effects that cleverly augment the text and punctuate Felix’s story.
Is Buffoon a must see? You bet it is.
Tarragon Theatre, Buffoon by Anosh Irani, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Nov. 12 to Dec. 15, 2019.