CoHo Clown Cohort: Sascha Blocker, Amica Hunter, Emily Newton, Maureen Porter, and Jeff Desautels
CoHo Clown Cohort: Sascha Blocker, Amica Hunter, Emily Newton, Maureen Porter, and Jeff Desautels Kevin Young/Neverland Images

When did the word "clown" become synonymous with “horrific grinning killer staring at you from the corner of your bedroom?" Given the contributions clowns have made to physical and political theater throughout history, the clown deserves more than such a one-noted reputation. Countries like France, Italy, and South Africa show cultural reverence for fools brave enough to mirror society with their antics. I humbly suggest our modern US society get with the program—and maybe give the whole creepy clown thing a break!

The CoHo Clown CoHort—led by CoHo’s Productions' Producing Artistic Director Philip Cuomo—have decided to carry the torch of dramatic clowning forward. Cuomo wants to know if this style of clowning can be meaningful for modern audiences. The answer? Yes. Their latest, in-progress work Witch Hunt appears at the Fertile Ground Festival, starting this weekend.

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Witch Hunt takes the shape of a series of semi-improvised comedy bits, which draw loose inspiration from Puritanism in the US colonial era. The scenes paint an impressionistic portrait of a familiar political landscape. We recognize Trump’s psychotic narcissism in Maureen Porter's Judge character—hypocritical, consumed by paranoia, and hellbent on winning. Witch Hunt tests the durability of long-form physical comedy with physicality, minimal dialogue, and ludicrous props (rubber chickens, briefcases, erotic candlesticks, etc.). But, though it's certainly political, it avoids arriving at a single concise statement.

The standout clown of Witch Hunt is Emily Newton—who was likewise incredible in the previous Clown CoHort production Philip’s Glass Menagerie. Newton captures the innocent ignorance that makes clowning an engagement with humility and discovery. In Witch Hunt, her character is so fully realized that when she leaves the stage you imagine her character continuing to exist, bumbling around somewhere behind the scenes, before accidentally making her way back into the play.

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Like Philip’s Glass Menagerie, Witch Hunt exists in a dark, funny world. Cozy, low lighting invites relaxation and mournful pizzicato cello arrangements add gravitas to silly, vulgar acts like a performer trying to take a recalcitrant dump into a bucket while they scream “Out, Satan!” The costuming contained one hiccup: Some actors wore brand name sneakers that didn't match their costumes (this was also the case in Philips Glass Menagerie) and it’s distracting.

As a piece, Witch Hunt asks how we live with the reality of irreconcilable opposites; God versus Satan, reality versus delusion, Democrats versus Republicans, sneakers versus colonial outfits. The performance is an opportunity to zoom out and have a good laugh at this mess. As with any in-progress piece of theater, some material is too on the nose and some symbolism is too obvious, but this will likely get dialed back as performances progress. Chances are you need a good laugh. Trust the CoHo Clown Cohort to deliver.