New York performance duo Richard Harrington and Chris Kauffman met in clown school -- at a five-day workshop with physical comic David Shiner, a Broadway cohort of the physical-comedy guy himself, Bill Irwin. They'd each already come up with their personal signature shticks: Harrington's on-stage persona, Gustave Flaubert (no relation to the author), evolved during a stint of standup- comedy open-mike nights in which the actor would sing "Hotel California" with a French accent, and Kauffman's bizarre, croak-voiced mime, Nhar, came from...well, nobody really knows for sure. The point is, the two characters somehow just seem to belong together, and their interactions keep audiences laughing.
"In a way, we're both like straight men to each other," Harrington says in an attempt to explain the oddball chemistry the two elicit in Nharcolepsy, their second performance piece (and fringe-festival hit) knit together by the antics of Gustave and Nhar. They'll be in town to demonstrate during a weekend run at the Buntport Theater; among other things, audiences will join them on a do-or-die trek to the North Pole in search of the Yeti, as well as hear stories about the Norwegian Fish-Rod Bucket Toss and tunes skronked out on a cheap accordion. For good measure, the duo will give the audience golf balls to pelt them and thus prevent the comics from succumbing to hypothermia.
"Eighty percent of the show is composed of things that happened on stage by accident," Harrington notes of the constantly evolving work.
Overall, though, it revolves around Gustave's Yeti quest, with Gustave telling the stories and Nhar doubling as stage manager and human quandary, hoarsely emoting (we're not sure it can be called "singing") his way through "Stormy Weather" and working from a surreal treasure chest of sight gags. "Our characters both have an unswerving dedication to their missions, which are ridiculous," says Harrington.
As actors, Harrington and Kauffman have been influenced by many avant-theatrical clowns, some better known to the world outside New York City than others. Among them are the aforementioned Irwin and Shiner, plus French clown teacher Philippe Gaulier. Comparisons to comic Andy Kauffman are also inevitable, though not because one of them shares his name: As with the late Kauffman, Harrington notes, audiences don't always know if they're serious or not. And as for the clownish connotations, it's Gaulier's Euro clown tradition they dance to rather than the homegrown, painted-faced Ringling variety.
"Gaulier's whole deal is pleasure in performance," Harrington says. "He says that if you're not having fun, you'll be inherently boring on stage. He's all about recovering the joy in play, that joy in deceiving people that you have when you're a little kid. Everyone is involved; there's a complicity between the audience and the actors on stage. This is definitely not Method acting."
Do audiences really need to recover their sense of play? Absolutely, says Harrington: "I guess it's just the way we're made. Dogs seem to need it, too. So do cats. Maybe it's just a mammal thing, I don't know." Kids, he adds, also glom on to the fun. "There are lots of mime mistakes in it, like shutting a car door on your hand. Little kids love that. And, in fact, the show even has something for live theater's most difficult demographic of all: twelve-year-old boys. They get to throw stuff at us."
Which is, apparently, not a bad or even painful thing. "It's really turned out to be a good idea, not just a goofy gimmick," Harrington says. "It really keeps them engaged, wondering, 'Should I throw the ball now? Should I wait?'" It's your call.
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