Mump and Smoot gibber at the York

Hobo clown odd couple regales cultish fans

Dystopian duo after 30 years together. Photo: Ian Jackson

Vancouverites, even the most theatre-savvy, will laugh at anything.

Anything, at least, that involves Canada’s own, home grown comedic geniuses Mump and Smoot. For proof, look no farther than the Cultch’s York Theatre, where the hobo clown team regales crowds of cultish fans with a new 80-minute farrago, “Mump and Smoot in Anything (MaSiA).”

As soon as the lights come up on the slumping, diminutive figure of Smoot (John Turner), before even the slightest twitch of his tender, pink little antler buds, the audience already erupts in loud guffaws. The hilarity swells as another spotlight picks out the priapic unicorn headgear of gawky Mump (Michael Kennard) silhouetted atop an upended valise.

Not that either character has yet actually budged or uttered a sound. The laughs betoken just the sheer anticipatory glee of dedicated devotees settling in for the latest instalment of the kind of slapstick tragedy we’ve come to expect, over the past three decades, from the dystopian duo.

In kind of a cross between “Waiting for Godot” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” MaSiA puts paid to such nagging little quandaries as life and death, resurrection, alienation, loss, pride and compassion. All without saying a word.

Well, hardly an intelligible word in any known language, anyway. The characters babble non-stop in a vernacular all their own; call it MaSiAn. In phonemes and cadence it seems to fall about midway on the Latinate-to-Slavonic spectrum, perhaps somewhere in the neighbourhood of Romanian.

Smoot lisps, purls, simpers and gargles this dialect in a wheedling falsetto. Mump anchors the basso register, grumbling, chiding, bullying or mansplaining by turns. Very rarely, when all else fails, will they vouchsafe an errant lexeme of English. But mostly they convey their moods, meanings and interpersonal dynamics with sheer body language and tone.

The tone, at this stage in their careers, has become a bit crotchety, but with an undercurrent of desperate dependency, as might befit (voice of experience here) a long-married pair. No wonder; Turner and Kennard have partnered onstage ever since they met, in 1986, at a Second City improv workshop, where they majored in – what else? – “gibberish exercises.”   

If Turner and Kinnear represent the Yin and Yang of this odd couple, the T’ai Chi that binds them must be their perennial collaborator Karen Hines, who was in that same 1986 workshop and has directed every Mump and Smoot show since. To her goes the credit for wrangling the improvisatory zest of her stars into any sort of thematic coherence.

And what a crowd-pleasing theme! In MaSiA, the overriding message seems to be the ineluctable drollery of Death. A none-too-grim Reaper, in the form of a ghostly, gauzy, pallid wraith (Jade Benoit), traipses silently across the stage from time to time, reshuffling the props for each new scene and generally spooking the protagonists.

Composer Greg Morrison’s piano score enhances the campy eeriness with lots of reverb and wind machine seethe. Set designer Riley Miljan clutters the stage like a cobwebby attic, with voodoo dolls, severed heads and Rube Goldberg IED’s emerging from the jumbled crates. Not to mention such atmospheric touches as a pair of baby-sized skeletons in lacy christening dresses and billows of machine smoke from the wings.

What starts out as the funniest scene in the show – a hobbyhorse steeplechase – ends up as one of the creepiest vignettes when Smoot’s mount dies in a botched hurdle jump. When frantic surgical interventions fail, the two clowns have no choice but to put the poor beast out of its misery, grazing each other with misfired bullets in the process.

The whole misguided idea of euthanizing the poor horse in the first place originated from a hollered suggestion from the loge. Mump and Smoot pointedly solicit audience participation at every turn, polling the house at key decision points and dragooning hapless groundlings onstage only to bark disorienting commands at them in unintelligible MaSiAn.

Which, naturally, only worsens the surreal dilemmas of the whimsical “plotlines.” One more testimonial – in case any further proof was needed after recent electoral upsets – of the Unwisdom of Crowds.

But at least MaSiA is way more fun than voting. Don’t miss its one-week run at the York.

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