Mump and Smoot: dispatches from the battlefield of clown horror

Michael Kennard and John Turner are clown duo Mump and Smoot.

Like all of us, Mump and Smoot are trapped in mortality. But they’re funny about it.

It’s not you, Mump and Smoot. It’s me. Maybe.

I have loved the duo Mump and Smoot for decades. Really. Since the ‘80s. These self-described “clowns of horror” always charm me and always push me towards hysteria. Their latest offering, Mump and Smoot in Anything, is no exception.

In it, they are imprisoned in a kind of existential hell by a ghoulish, white-gowned female figure named Knooma. Off the top, it’s established that every time Mump and Smoot try to venture beyond the prison of the stage—into the wings say, or through the fourth wall—they get electrocuted. Throughout the evening, Knooma presents them with a number of trials, which, from another angle, are vaudevillian sketches. In “The Escape”, they must free themselves from a small, barred cage. In “The Romp”, they negotiate competition, in the form of an equestrian contest. (The existential hell concept gets a little loose at this point.) And, in “The Remedy”, they take turns giving one another psychiatric exams.

Mump and Smoot are related to Ronald Macdonald and happy-slappy parade clowns only in your nightmares. Their shows always feature blood, dismemberment, and, usually, some form of disembowelment. Mump and Smoot play with the horror—and the absurdity—of mortality. Don’t bring your kids.

Mump and Smoot also play with power, and that’s where their shows really capture hearts. In a classic clowning relationship, Mump is grumpy and dominant, and Smoot is his chaotically innocent sidekick. Every time I see him, Smoot reminds me of whatever dog I’m sharing my life with: you can’t help but love him. And John Turner, the artist who lets Smoot inhabit him, is wildly skilled. You can see it in his physicality, in the coquettish turn of his legs and hips when Smoot is deliberately ignoring Mump. And you can feel it in Smoot’s full-throttle joy—when he’s grinning, his face wide open, as he flirts with an audience volunteer.

Mump and Smoot speak in gibberish, but snippets of English pop through, and the surprise when you suddenly recognize words and phrases such as “fourth wall”, “philosophy”, and something very close to “I don’t give a fuck”, is as sudden and refreshing as a spritz from a seltzer bottle.

Both Turner and Michael Kennard (Mump) are expert improvisers. Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of arriving late or eating snacks from a crinkly package.

All of this is great. But I tripped, conceptually, watching Mump and Smoot in Anything, and I never fully regained my footing. Spoiler alert: don’t read any further if you don’t want to know about a significant plot point.

In one of the vignettes, an animal is killed. Not a real animal, of course, a fabric prop. Mump forces Smoot to shoot his horse. This is very personal to my experience, but I have a friend whose crazy father gave him a rifle, when he was a boy, and told him to shoot his dog to prove his love for his dad. Because of my emotional context, the “edge” of this particular piece snapped. I think it might also have something to do with the fact that, emotionally, I invested more in the fate of the fantasy horse than in the sufferings of Mump and Smoot—both bleed during the evening—because Mump and Smoot are so clearly playing. They have agency and resiliency in the way that a prop or toy doesn’t. The prop is a pure symbol.

Whatever. I was willing to write off this response as a personal quirk. But, when we hit a scene in which there’s an explosion and Smoot starts to bleed from the mouth, all I could see was Syria. Even the scenes in which Mump beats Smoot with a rubber club became uncomfortable. That’s standard clown lazzi and it’s never bothered me before. So what the hell?

It’s likely that I just hit a personal tripwire. It’s also possible that for me—and maybe for other people—horror is getting more concrete these days. Gay men are being rounded up, tortured, and murdered in Chechnya. And that’s just one example. Maybe, in the current climate, the comedy of horror demands more context. Karen Hines, who directed Mump and Smoot in Anything, recently performed her self-penned show Crawlspace in Vancouver. Based on her own story, Crawlspace tells a tale of real-estate disaster and financial ruin. Crawlspace is about horror. It’s also about materialism, unethical practices, and naiveté. It’s hilarious, and its specificity allows it to make a surgical incision. In comparison, Mump and Smoot in Anything feels like a flailing blow.

Or maybe I’m just a snowflake.

Whatever the case, the performers in Mump and Smoot in Anything are skilled. The texture of the piece is fantastic: I love the spooky music and the shafts of light from the projected scene titles passing through the foggy theatre. Turner and Kennard are an iconic team and they’re worth seeing.

I had an odd night at this show, though. As a critic, all I can do in a situation like this is reflect on my experience and report in.

You should know: my friend didn’t shoot his dog.

MUMP AND SMOOT IN ANYTHING By Michael Kennard and John Turner. Directed by Karen Hines. A Mump and Smoot production presented by The Cultch at the York Theatre Thursday, April 27. Continues until May 6.

For tickets, phone 604-251-1363, email boxoffice@thecultch.com, or visit https://thecultch.com/tickets/

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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