Mump and Smoot in Anything's dark funhouse universe hits home in these times

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      Created and performed by Michael Kennard and John Turner. Directed by Karen Hines. At the York Theatre on Sunday, April 30. Continues until May 6

      These are dystopian times for the iconic “clowns of horror”, Mump and Smoot. Like the rest of us, they consider themselves free but are bound to their station by invisible forces—in their case, an electrical force field that delivers a near-lethal shock whenever there’s an attempt to breach the first, second, third, or fourth walls. Disaster looms, here in the shape of a ticking, balloon-topped contraption that threatens to unleash not an explosion but a cloud of poison gas. And when the two eventually find themselves physically confined—in a cage or torture cell that doesn’t allow them to stretch or sit upright—they’re too invested in their powerlessness to realize that all they need to do to escape is free their feet and walk away.

      In Mump and Smoot in Anything, as in other Mump and Smoot productions, we are temporarily released from the everyday and delivered into a funhouse universe. Reality intrudes, as when hard choices must be made or relationships sour, and death is ever-present—here in the form of Knooma, a radiant spectre swathed in white robes and radioactive green light, who is muse, jailer, stagehand, and destroying angel all at once. But there are also moments of giddy absurdity, as when the two clowns stage an equestrian competition while wearing quadruped costumes: Mump “riding” the unicorn Kango, Smoot the broken-down grey mare Clop.

      Between the expressive physicality of the performers, the recognizable meanness of Mump and the sweetness of Smoot, the precision of the staging, and the deft incorporation of audience members into the plot, most viewers will sport a fixed rictus—a facial expression lodged somewhere between hilarity and fear—five minutes into the show, if not sooner. But whereas earlier Mump and Smooth productions produced a lasting impression, Anything’s pleasures proved evanescent. My grin was off my face minutes rather than days after the show’s end; other viewers reported feeling “underwhelmed”.

      Admittedly, my sample size was small, and consisted entirely of people who had seen Mump and Smoot before. Those new to the duo will no doubt be amazed. But for M&S veterans, Michael Kennard and John Turner’s act has devolved from its earlier, wonderful heights. Smoot is less appealingly doglike and more sadly human than before, and whereas earlier productions were performed almost entirely in Ummonian, a kind of manic Esperanto, Anything includes a lot of recognizable, and profane, English.

      Both changes allow easier access to the clowns’ world, but they also serve to reduce audience engagement. Because we don’t have to work as hard to understand Mump and Smoot’s language, we don’t feel their predicament as keenly, and because emotions are telegraphed rather than implied, the plot’s shocking moments are too easily anticipated. The existential questions so movingly intimated in Anything’s rather Godot–esque opening sequence also slide too quickly into slapstick.

      Audiences will laugh. Kennard and Turner remain unbreakably elastic and affecting. There’s not a single nit to pick about the staging. Anything’s not-so-secret message—that we need human connection to survive—is welcome and clear. Still, real life has turned into a global farce, there’s an evil clown at the wheel, and this is no time to soft-pedal the horror.