From the first minute I saw the cast in “Ka-Blam!” at the Rudyard Kipling last spring, I have been intrigued by this anarchic company that has adopted the stage name of Joseph Pujol, the notorious Moulin Rouge showman who brought flatulence into the realm of performance art. Using the barest set I’ve ever seen, Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble’s actors were literally in my face during realistic yet obviously staged fight scenes. “Ka-Blam!” was a live-action comic book that sprang from the ensemble’s collective brain in the same way Athena sprang fully armed from Zeus’s head.
The routines mounted by Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble defy description or even — the crutch of critics — comparison. Its members see themselves as “an ensemble of performing artists dedicated to the creation of new theatrical works and the reconsideration of classic works and forms, with the primary goal of making all of our offerings both artistically and economically accessible.” They further note that “we believe that quality is always innovative, that by disregarding the de rigueur we can give audiences unrepeatable experiences.”
If that sounds a bit lofty, fear not. Le Petomane’s philosophy boils down to a succinct maxim: “Comedy allows one to do all sorts of deeply sneaky things for/with/to an audience.”
Many comedy acts have been presented to us, ready-made, as “subversive,” from Lenny Bruce (who really was) to “Saturday Night Live” (which really wasn’t). Le Petomane doesn’t have to talk about it, they just do it. They just be it.
In “Ka-Blam,” the hero loses his soul to a tennis ball. He wonders where trust resides without a soul. Later, the soulless hero spouts empty poetry in a seedy bar. The underlying message: Without a trusting, childlike attitude, art becomes self-serving and pointless.
Le Petomane’s version of Moliere’s “Don Juan” appears on the surface to be a human puppet show, with marionette-like actors costumed in clownish masks and hand-painted aprons. But underneath the bizarre costumes and masks, Le Petomane slips in politically charged commentary — namely, that our leaders are hypocrites who use religion to shield misdeeds.
Simply put, Le Petomane is agitprop vaudeville.
Last month, I corralled all six members of the company at one of our city’s ubiquitous Starbuck’s, then wound them up and let them talk. And talk they did — about their art, their process and their name. The beauty and uniqueness of this group is that all are co-equal artistic co-directors.
So, yeah, why did they name themselves after a farting vaudevillian?
Gregory Maupin was quick to respond: “The idea was that Le Petomane had a talent that he was born with. I don’t know if ‘talent’ is the word, an ability … whether or not it was theatrical, he decided he could use
in a theatrical way. None of us has that same talent, but we all have lots of odd things beyond being able to tap-dance or play the guitar or burp on cue.”
Maupin admitted that many artists would not immediately jump at building a theatrical performance on such talents.
“But we can, and have, built a show around that,” he said. “We have lots of odd things we can do, maybe not necessarily theatrical.”
The bottom line, said Greg’s fellow troupe member (and wife) Abigail Bailey Maupin, is that Le Petomane symbolizes “taking what we have and making the most of it.”
Part of the group’s dynamic is they all like one another and respect each other’s work. That means they trust each other’s criticism when directing each other (which they all do). The members say they are egoless as individuals, but, according to Greg, the “group has an ego.”
“The group ego is we want to put on a good show,” Abigail chimed in. “So, somehow all of that other little stuff floats away.”
Just how did it all start? One weekend in August 2001, Gregory and Abigail met at a mutual friend’s house in Boston, where they’d gone for two different weddings. Abigail was living in New York and Greg was in Chicago. Their host decided to have a luau, and that was “it” for them.
In January 2002 Greg moved to New York, where Abigail had worked in theater for 11 years. The two married in January 2003. By June, they realized they didn’t want to be in New York and they moved to Louisville where Greg was born. They had never worked together but threw caution to the wind and started a theater company.
Greg had trained at northern California’s Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where the focus is always on “physical theater.” He studied clown, commedia and general mask work. He studied the ensemble-based creative process. The approach differed by focusing on other traditions than those taught in conventional acting schools.
It also was a place to “get your clown,” Greg said.
Believe it or not, there are two schools of thought on this. One school believes a performer has only one clown: one character that really taps into his or her personality. The other regards “the clown” as a general acting style.
Greg sits in between both schools.
“It is a style, and I think one can handle more than one character,” he said. “But if one hits on a good one and chooses to stick with it for a long time, a kind of depth is possible that one really can’t find any other way.”
He elaborated, saying that “theatrical clown people,” on one end of the spectrum, talk about clowning and the process behind it in lofty, philosophical language, while the clowning in the circus context is primarily into basic gags.
His general rule: “Circus clowns are scary on stage. Theater clowns are scary when you talk to them about clowning offstage.”
Naturally, Le Petomane’s first effort, “Siddown,” was a clown show that premiered at the Rudyard Kipling in November 2004 and featured Greg and Abigail. By the next October the troupe had grown to include Kyle Ware, Kristie Rolape, Tony Dingman and Heather Burns, who staged Greg’s six-actor adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
They got on well and had onstage chemistry. “Et voila!” Le Petomane was established.
From Shakespeare to Chaplin
Le Petomane sneaks important ideas to the audience under the veil of laughter. And laughter is, after all, the best medicine. Under this troupe’s guise, the humor is also subversive.
Take “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” widely known as a romantic comedy. The play opens, however, with gruesome prospects for Hermia, whose father, Egeus, condemns her to death for refusing to marry Demetrius.
Greg pointed out that this “is not funny,” and explained how the complete rank stupidity that ensues for the next hour of that show emerges from the horrible dark threat hanging over her head, and the danger of the entire nature cycle being turned on its head by angry fairies.
To put their unique spin on the play, Greg noted that “everyone at some point took on the role of Puck, whose mask would kind of grab actors and inhabit them, and the minimized casting did some really fascinating (and as adapter, he admitted, accidental) things to the big finale. We also used 16 masks, no technical frills and took the words ‘a comedy’ on the title page to mean it should actually be in some way funny. Every character is obsessive and ridiculous, so why should the laborers always bear the brunt of the ridicule?”
That strategy — presenting a subversive and creative yet unadorned version — worked. After its 2006 performance at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, a review in CityBeat, the Cincinnati alternative newsweekly, marveled at how easily the six handled a full-blown Shakespearean cast, and said they easily morphed from one role to another right before the audience’s eyes.
Good comedy, even just for comedy’s sake, includes something dark, Greg said, even the threat of starvation or death. He cited one of America’s most iconic actors.
“Chaplin is famous for being goofy, but he mostly was a homeless guy, not a fun guy with a bowler,” he said. “He could be like the guy sleeping on the lap of the statue when they unveil it in the morning because he has nowhere to sleep.”
Greg recounted his favorite skit, where Chaplin’s character steals a hot dog from a baby.
“There’s a kid at the circus, old enough to have a hot dog but young enough for his dad to be holding him,” he said. “So the dad is facing one way and holding the baby on his shoulder. Chaplin makes cute faces like, ‘Aw, cute baby,’ and every time the dad turns away, Chaplin takes a bite out of the hot dog. It’s an awful and desperate thing. He’s apparently starving.”
Greg contrasts the comedic approach to desperate situations with how they are treated in tragedy, which glorifies the suffering. He called the latter “the Lear thing,” which connects with audience members by compelling them to think, “Oh yes, we have suffered like him.”
Then Greg groaned. “Oh, good Lord.”
Abigail added that embedding messages in the comedy can make people laugh but also think about insinuations and meaning after resuming their daily lives.
Greg noted that Le Petomane performances tend to elicit comments from both camps — those who find more depth in the performances and those who don’t.
“An even amount of people who come to us after and say, ‘Oh, it’s nice. Really, there was a depth to that thing,’” he said. “And there are those who come up and say, ‘I haven’t just sat and hadn’t had a thought in my head and just laughed for an hour in so long. Thank you very much.’ And I couldn’t care less which person comes up.”
Creative process at work
How do they come up with such original shows as “Ka-Blam!” and “Public Espionage” (which premiered at the 2007 Cincinnati Fringe Festival)?
My question sets off a barrage of responses.
“We do the crazy make-’em-ups,” Abigail says.
“We have to book dates and tell people we’re doing it,” Greg interjects. “Our tendency is to do the opposite of the norm. We choose a title because we have to do things like order postcards and send out press releases. There’s an idea in the works when the title is chosen. Then we make up the show in the rehearsal process. Whoever is free to be involved joins in.”
In creating “Public Espionage,” the group loosely teamed with another ensemble, Cincinnati’s Performance Gallery, which created a show called “Girl Fight.” The groups made a list of 10 elements to be included in both storylines. Each group had to use the same arbitrary elements in their totally distinct shows. For example, “pumpernickel” and “bubble blowing” figured into both shows. Together, they created an oddball synchronicity that defied explanation (for those who didn’t know about the list). Le Petomane hopes to bring Performance Gallery to Louisville next year for a back-to-back presentation of both shows.
“Many of us brought in our own character, or wrote for our own character or our part of the show,” says Tony Dingman, adding that the shows came together in the final week.
“How do you know when you’re done?” I ask.
“People come,” Greg says.
And with that, Le Petomane’s “group ego” suddenly takes over.
“When you have an old man who does your hair and who can’t stand up without pushing on your shoulder and he’s this close. Whenever he brushes, his pinky ends up in your eye,” Dingman says. “That’s the kind of thing we like to happen.”
Kyle Ware chimes in. “I still like the button on that story, which is when you went to Fantastic Sam’s …”
“I went to get it fixed and they said, ‘You’re at least the third person who has come to get it fixed,’” Dingman continues. “It’s now under new management, but probably the same guy cutting the hair. He’s in the chair saying ‘from my cold dead hands.’ It’s a tragic story. Shakespearean really. Learish. His daughters are prostitutes.”
“Can we do ’Lear?’” Heather Burns asks no one in particular.
On the spot, the group began to put its own stamp on “King Lear.”
“I always pictured Lear as the King of Texas Used Auto,” Greg announces.
“He’s a barber,” Dingman says.
“And his daughters,” says Ware, “want to turn it into a salon but tradition dictates he is going to keep that bastard a barber shop.”
“Goneril,” adds Burns, “has married a Vietnamese person and she wants to do nails now.”
Kristie Rolape joins the mix.
“Only Cordelia wants to keep it all natural and no chemicals. All natural products.”
“Regan could say, ‘Do you want to make it a Fantastic Colony?’” Tony suggests, adding another twist.
“You’re gonna oust me. I’m just gonna go work at Fantastic Sam’s,” Ware counters.
Greg has another idea.
“Oh. The eye scene is a whole new thing,” he says. “Do they just shave his head? Do they poke his eyes out or do they do something else? They pinky his eyes out unintentionally.”
I now feel like I’m being carried out to sea on a pirate ship. I have no idea where it will lead, and yet it all seems to coalesce magically. It is as if the entity knows where it is going, and steers each member toward that goal. Ensemble members obviously had no idea which path they were taking to create this story, but they were pleased as punch when they realized the potential of a comedic version of “King Lear.”
What lies ahead
With so many creative voices involved in group decisions, and with an abundance of exciting and innovative ideas, the ensemble seems destined to move on. Their latest clever idea is to apply for nonprofit status, as a 501(c)3. That would make donations tax-deductible.
For now, Greg noted that the troupe is actually financially fit and not dependent on handouts.
“As profit-share percentages go, it’s pretty impressive,” he said, then lamented that the “actual dollar amount you get that percentage of is pretty puny.”
He wants to find grants to help support the members who work not only as performers but also as directors, designers and publicists.
Will success spoil Le Petomane? Not likely.
But Abigail is vigilant.
“If and when we do start getting money,” she said, “I hope we won’t lose too much of our less-is-more quality. I like our shows being kind of naked and forced to be creative within boundaries.”
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How do they pay the rent?
• Abigail and Gregory Maupin do as much acting as possible. Locally they have worked with Music Theatre Louisville and will soon begin work with Stage One. Abigail performed with Actors Theatre last season, and Greg has taught drama at Indiana University Southeast.
• Tony Dingman works primarily at The Frazier International History Museum, where he coordinates educational events. He also teaches a class at Walden.
• Heather Burns is director of education at Blue Apple Players. She also performs historical interpretations at The Frazier.
• Kristie Rolape is a storyteller with Blue Apple Players. She also is an artistic associate with the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s Bard Buddies elementary school program. This fall, she will work on a master’s degree in speech pathology at the University of Louisville.
• Kyle Ware is director of the Tourism Honors Academy, an academic leadership program for high school students. He also is a freelance visual artist.