The circus must be in town considering the variety of clown shows being offered at the Ottawa Fringe Festival this year. The genre itself, if you are unfamiliar, does not strictly rest in comedy or ridicule and as Aplombusrhomus’ Cardinal shows us, clown can be an incredible way to reach new levels of storytelling. Using only their physicality and some clever colour choices, creators-performers Madeleine Hall and Mitchel Rose take audiences on a powerful journey through one man’s subconscious struggle against Alzheimer’s disease.
I use the word ‘subconscious’ because, in fact, the characters that Hall and Rose portray are the physical embodiments of the inner workings of the Invisible Man’s mind (we hear him snoring, but never actually see him on stage). Rose (École Jacque Lecoq) represents memory and dresses in bright cardinal red; Hall (École Philippe Gaulier) is then the disease itself, donning crisp white garments in contrast- we’ll get into the use of these two colours a little later on. Cardinal is aptly described as a “tug-of-war” that “illustrates the heartbreaking and hilarious realities at play” whilst in the hands of a crippling disease.
This show is brilliant. Yes, it’s certainly about Alzheimer’s and the cause this company has adopted is both personal* (note: Hall’s grandmother suffered from
the disease dementia as explored in her lovely piece Ethel) and admirable. However, what Cardinal achieves on stage is so much more. The performance has a number of illustrative layers which give it real gravitas and make the show so widely accessible.
First, I’d like to briefly explore how Cardinal can be extended to representing not just Alzheimer’s but an array of other illnesses and disease that take over their victims in similar ways. If anyone’s had the grievous experience of watching a loved one physically and/or mentally deteriorate over time, you will certainly find elements of this show poignant. Each character’s bastions are represented by coloured chairs (six in total and divided equally between red and white) that then become involved in a seemingly innocent game of checkers. The red chairs could represent memories or they could even represent abilities or faculties of the human mind and/or body. It’s interesting that they chose the colours red and white- colours that are also representative of blood cells- and how the white character’s ultimate take over could be seen as the spread of Leukemia.
Furthermore, the use of colour is in itself a way to interpret the performance in its simplest terms. By minimizing the colour scheme to only include red and white, the distinction in character and who owns what object is made crystal clear. Cardinal presents us with a battle between Red and White, where Red is meticulous and White is mischievous. We see a wonderfully tragic relationship between the two characters unfold as Red hesitantly engages with and tentatively trusts the mysterious white figure who ultimately takes advantage of this kindness. The moment where Rose clings to the door after Hall’s first attempt into “the room behind” with realization and distrust written all over his face and equally apparent in his knocking knees, is a testament to this show’s transcendent quality. You could easily bring younger audiences to this show and have it resonate with them.
Moreover, the colours speak to the spectator on a symbolic level. Red can indicate a number of things including lust, anger, love, or even liveliness; while white can represent purity, cleanliness, and holiness. However, in a number of non-Western cultures, white is seen to symbolize death and sickness. For me, the most notable aspect about the decision to use white to represent the character of disease is that it personifies the key symptom of Alzheimer’s: blankness of the mind.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the incredible performances put on by duo Hall and Rose. Their physicality is so quirky and entertaining to watch on stage; this is certainly one of the most polished pieces of clown I’ve had the pleasure to experience. Rose exudes an immense amount of physical strength that is ultimately defeated by an impish Hall’s sly plotting. These two work very well together and have successfully created three dimensional characters on stage without ever speaking a word.
Cardinal is beautiful both in its simplicity and in its complexities. This duality is the show’s greatest strength and is what allows it to be profound yet still easily accessible and fun. One of #ottfringe’s must-see shows, Aplombusrhombus is a company you don’t want to miss.
*Editor’s Note: It has been brought to my attention that the deeply personal nature of this piece is drawn from Rose’s grandmother who suffered from the Alzheimer’s Disease and not Hall’s like originally published. The show was collecting donations for the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada and if you would still like to donate, information can be found here.