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BY TRAV S.D. | “No darkness lasts forever,” wrote the late Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1972 young adult novel “The Farthest Shore” — “And even there, there are stars.”
This month a couple of stars have descended upon us from Canada to enact their own struggle against the night, inviting the audience to come along for the journey. “James & Jamesy In the Dark” has been playing at the SoHo Playhouse since Sept. 12, and is scheduled to stay on the boards through Oct. 14. In the popular piece, which the Canadian clowns have been performing on two continents since 2015, James (Aaron Malkin) and Jamesy (Alastair Knowles) are a couple of whitefaced creatures in three-piece suits who literally illuminate the world around them with the lampshades on their heads. It’s an age-old metaphor, but that hasn’t dimmed its truth.
Malkin and Knowles met while performing with a community theatre in Vancouver, called Dusty Flower Pot Cabaret. Prior to trying their hand at performing, Malkin, from Toronto, had studied biology. Knowles, from Winnipeg, had been a business major. Like their fellow company members, both men were drawn into studying with David MacMurray Smith, whom Knowles describes as “this under-the-radar clown guru of Western Canada.” Knowles says Smith’s training is about being “honest with yourself. Sharing who you are. It’s not about doing something funny but a willingness to be seen.”
Malkin and Knowles formed their comedy duo in 2012, with Smith, their former teacher, as their director. Their characters, including their whimsical names, and all of their material, have grown out of improvisational exercises. There have been three shows prior to “In the Dark,” including “Two for Tea,” “High Tea,” and “O Christmas Tea.” Touring annually, their shows have sold over 60,000 tickets and been performed over 500 times across North America and the UK.
Jamesy, Knowles’ character, is the more eccentric, awkward and social one. James (Malkin) is more settled and standoffish, and more attached to his individuality. When asked which clowns they admire, the names Bill Irwin, Rowan Atkinson, and our old friend Red Bastard (Eric Davis) came up.
According to Malkin, the inspiration for “In the Dark” came to them almost by accident. “We were invited to do some roving theatre at an outdoor music festival performance at night,” he explained. “We were told there would be no stage, no amplification, and no light. This sounded like a fun puzzle. We wanted to be seen, of course, so we came up with idea to play with lights. The grey three-piece suits came later.”
“People kept coming up to us [at the festival],” added Knowles, “They were intrigued. They kept asking, ‘What are you? What are you supposed to be?’ We loved that we inspired these questions.”
In “In the Dark,” the two performers move about a completely unlit stage, the only illumination coming from the lights in their costumes. “This allows us meticulous control of the focus, both the light and the shadows,” Malkin said. “We stripped away all peripheral elements such as plot and location. Somebody said the show reminded him of Beckett as written by Douglas Adams.”
Because the characters can only see what they are looking at, and are blind to everything they are not looking at, Knowles noted, “You get a sense of the characters being surrounded by the Unknown. There is an acceptance of the Unknown. The characters are both independent and alone, and then they meet and discover the concept of a ‘we.’ Eventually the concept gets expanded to include the audience.”
“It’s existential but not on the nose,” Malkin assured me. “You don’t have to be a philosophy major to enjoy it. You can watch passively or get into layers of meaning.”
Having seen the live show, this correspondent can attest to its richness as a theatrical experience. Knowles and Malkin mix elements of improv and movement and, sometimes even it seems, animated cartoons, to tell their story, with no shortage of funny, crazy, facemaking to make their existential medicine go down merrily. Like all great clowns, they’re also great actors. Seventy-five minutes in their company, like our time together on this earth, will fly by all too fast.
Through Oct. 14 at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St., btw. Sixth Ave. & Varick St.). Wed-Sun. at 7pm; Sat. & Sun. at 3pm. For tickets ($29), call visit SoHoPlayhouse.com or call 212-691-1444. Artist info at jamesandjamesy.com. Directed by David MacMurray Smith.