Review: Death Clowns in Guantanamo Bay (Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies/The Blacklist Committee for Unsafe Theatre)

death clowns

Clowns against the war at University of Toronto’s Studio Theatre

Death Clowns in Guantanamo Bay playing at U of T’s Studio Theatre has a lot of good ideas, a lot of good actors, and a few moments of genuine innovation. My guest and I both had a soft spot for clowning, for political themes and for unconventional approaches to theatre–and this company takes good, hard swings at all three.

The clowning is wonderful. Their success in other areas is more mixed.

Leslie Robertson and Christine Mazumdar (as vaudevillians Karol and Olek) have a talent for physical comedy and deep mutual chemistry. The effect they produce is compelling, touching, can’t-look-away theatre at its best. The chorus, who do much of the heavy lifting (guards, interrogators, inmates), are also excellent: special mention to Kaitlin Heller, who has a number of especially important–and interesting–parts.

The set is interesting and functional, making the most of an extremely awkward space: somehow designer Jenn Cole has crammed a teeter-totter, an interrogation chair, a gallows, a shower cubicle, and a cage large enough to contain the entire cast into a studio space while still allowing a full-sized stage. The bad news is that 80% of this furniture is behind the audience. You have plenty of time before and after the show to wander around poking and prodding the equipment, but the show itself is a painful exercise in craning and twisting–so much so that most of the audience stopped bothering after the second or third scene.

This setup also creates other problems. On the one hand, setting so much business on the floor produces a tremendously interactive and intimate sort of theatre. On the other, only the front row can see any of it.

Similarly, some of the moments in this show are actually very interesting: brief segments exploring different techniques of torture are fascinating and well-delivered; Karol and Olek discovering and “playing” with the fixtures of Guantanamo present an extremely entertaining and absolutely heartbreaking picture; a late sequence dealing with medical complicity in torture is important and interesting.

But in between, well.

This is the kind of show where prison guards, dressed as clowns, goose-step through the audience chanting the lyrics to that inane song from Barney. Unless you’re the sort of person who likes your political commentary strong, blunt and dull, I think the only thing keeping you awake will be the noise.

I also found it distressing that so much of that commentary is directed at such soft targets: of the people sitting in the audience of an anti-war theatre production at the University of Toronto, how many of them need to be told that waterboarding is torture, or that indefinite detention is a scandal? What’s the point?

The costumes, design, dramaturgy and staging are reminiscent of Oh! What A Lovely War!, but the comparison is not a favourable one. Lovely War! had a clear and singular purpose: dispelling myths and misconceptions about the first world war, in a society which was still ignorant of the history, effects and aftermath of that conflict. Death Clowns goes after Iraq and Afghanistan with similar relish, but with none of the subtlety, understanding or context, producing only mild bromides–most of which passed their best-before date sometime in the mid-2000s.

What we’re left with is a fierce, savage political beast lacking fangs and claws. Either you’re the sort of person who finds goose-stepping clowns inherently interesting and trenchant and hilarious, or you don’t. And if you don’t, there’s not much else here to hold your interest.

There’s so, so much in this show I wanted to like. Both my guest and I agreed that the cast were excellent, that Olek & Karol in particular could be a show unto themselves (no, really: we want to see more of you guys!), and that the creativity put into the set and staging produced some great effects. But none of it really coalesces or reaches equilibrium with the sum of these outstanding parts.


  • Death Clowns in Guantanamo Bay plays through March 24th 2013 at the University of Toronto’s Studio Theatre. (4 Glen Morris St. near Spadina and Harbord.)
  • Remaining performances are 8 PM on Friday and Saturday, and 2 PM on Sunday.
  • Tickets are $10. Sunday matinee is PWYC.
  • Tickets may be purchased by telephone at 416.978.7986, in-person at the venue before performances, or at the U of T box office.
  • An interactive Android app was not available at opening night, but will apparently be available at subsequent performances.

Photograph of Leslie Robertson and Christine Mazumdar by Isabel Stowell-Kaplan.