‘Clown Sex Ed’ by Tribe of Fools: Vulnerability, compassion, and plenty of craziness
Many kids learn about sex at home, or in school, or in religion class, or in gym class. Wherever adults try to teach sex ed, it's hilarious. And Tribe of Fools exploits the built-in hilarity to explore our vulnerabilities and excellences as real-life clowns.
Sex education is good for us, we’re told. And so are clowns.
Put them together and you have Clown Sex Ed, the current romp by physical theater zanies Tribe of Fools, on at Philly Improv Theatre through Feb. 17. I’d like every performance in the little theater to be as jammed as it was Sunday night, to watch Tribe members Tara Demmy and Zachary Chiero mug, dance, tumble, and unite theater and circus arts to tell a story.
That’s what sets Tribe of Fools apart: They are first and foremost storytellers. Here, the story is our floundering institutional efforts to educate kids about sex, so their encounters with intimacy don’t destroy them too much, so they’re at least a little prepared for what you can’t really be prepared for.
That’s a funny story, in schools, churches, and families all over. Demmy and Chiero nail it, poking fingers into all sorts of naughty places. Each is transformed by that red clown nose. He’s the bashful little boy, she the mouth-breathing little girl: Behold the target audience for all these adults acting crazy. After sex-ed class, they go home to “practice,” but kissing is hard with that nose on. They try out the prow scene of Titanic or the erotic upside-down kiss in Spider-Man. Watching TV, they encounter a porn channel and, er, follow along – yet another place where the circus arts tell the tale in ways dialogue just can’t.
He takes Mom, she takes Dad. “Sex! Talk! 2019!” they cry, but their talk with the kid breaks down into “Firework” by Katy Perry or “Your Body Is a Wonderland” by John Mayer. We meet two nuns teaching about sex while warning against it. (Demmy’s nun prescribes putting on oven mitts whenever the self-touching urge arises.)
We meet Coach Jim (“I coach gym!”), who co-teaches Safe Sex Class with his enthusiastically tribadic sidekick Kimberly. We tour that parental nightmare, Susanne Edwards Xavier college, a very open-minded place when it comes to student sex (the dispensers for hand-cleaner and for lube are interchangeable).
Highest of many high points is the STDodgeball sequence, which enlists the audience in throwing balls marked “Crabs” or “Chlamydia” and a big one labeled “Pregnancy” (“The worst STD!” says Coach) at condoms, birth-control pills, and IUDs. A frequently uproarious audience helped them out.
Clowns are sad because they know what life is. Chiero is terrific as he falls in love with an audience member — just through a handshake — and gets his heart broken. Hard-hearted realities of choosing and not being chosen braid with equally soft-hearted realities of friendship. She comforts him, and us.
Clown Sex Ed thus ends with compassion. Class is over. Now the lifetime class, the really scary one, begins. The little girl says, “I’m scared.” The little boy says, rightly, “That’s OK” — two words that embody the best teaching we have about sex.
Ideal for Philly Theatre Week, Clown Sex Ed is a good intro to the increasing presence in the Philly theater world of physical theater, improv, and circus arts. I hope Tribe of Fools makes this show a perennial: It’s a likely pairing with artistic director Terry Brennan’s bravura School Play, another crazy look at life in class.