For Christina Lewis, clowning is rarely a laughing matter. While attending Oberlin College in the 70’s, she joined a mime troupe and created a piece about her eating disorder. In the sketch she raids a kitchen late at night, and in the last moments she opens up a refrigerator – but instead of eating its contents, the refrigerator consumes her. Everybody laughed, she remembers, but her friends knew she had revealed to the audience something she had been struggling with for a very long time.
“That was an ah-ha moment, because I recognized that art can create a connection to our pain, and by bringing it up and sharing it, a kind of healing can occur,” she said in a recent interview, nibbling on a Cambodian spinach leaf hors d’oeuvre.
By exposing this problem to others, she felt a sort of catharsis and became empowered to conquer what she felt was so shameful. Through this method she was eventually able to say goodbye to her kitchen raiding alter-ego clown, Melancholia. In a new show called Tasty Bites, which plays this weekend at NOHSpace (2840 Mariposa Street), Lewis plays a free and animated clown named Dotty Moppet alongside co-performers Lluis Valls and James Pelican. Together they call themselves Clowns on a Stick.
While not as deeply personal as Lewis’ kitchen piece, Tasty Bites – written mostly by Pelican, founder of the troupe and one of Lewis’ former pupils – is still an exploration of primitive human emotions. It’s a collection of the trio’s best work over the last 13 years of working together.
In one sketch, Pelican is seeing Lewis off at a bus stop. While they’re waiting for the bus driver to load up the bus, Lewis hands Pelican paper hearts, while he gives her gifts in return – flowers, a monkey wrench, and eventually a whole kitchen sink. The driver in turn loads the gifts onto the bus, and while Lewis and Pelican smother each other with kisses, the bus driver pries Lewis away, leaving Pelican alone and crestfallen on stage with only a paper heart Lewis gave him.
“It’s not just about the laughter – we take every emotion pump it up to max,” Pelican said in a recent interview. “We wanna take every emotion and bring it it surface … so the laughter can be deeper and fuller, and more well rounded.”
Pelican said he’s a bit more cautious of assigning to clowning the therapeutic values that Lewis uses in her creative process. Although clowning has helped him find his voice and overcome his “mortal fear of embarrassment,” he tends more toward searching for the absurd in human scenarios. “There’s something more sublime,” he said.
However, one of the most provocative sketches of the show is something Lewis came up with as her sad clown, Melancholia. Lewis wrote the sketch 20 years ago, when she still felt small and didn’t feel she had the right to step out into the world.
Donning a clown’s nose and a striped prisoner’s suit, Lewis holds a frame around her weeping face. But every time she reaches out or pokes her head through the frame she giggles in ecstasy – almost orgasmically – and then immediately apologizes. She eventually climbs through the frame and, once free, jumps around, intoxicated with joy. She then settles down, becomes sad again, and apologizes to the audience profusely until the lights dim.
“It’s safe in the frame – it’s small and confining and limiting – but safe. And the big world is exciting … but it’s dangerous,” she said. “So it’s that kind of struggle of being safe in the limited place.”
The act was met with wry laughter, as the audience wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Even Lewis was unsure about how it was received. The vignette was, after all, a complete departure from the rest of an otherwise ha-ha funny show. “That material is more raw and more revealing,” she said. “It’s telling the truth, and the truth is inherently funny.”
You can see Tasty Bites at NOHSpace for $20. It plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 5 p.m.