In the Venn diagram of classical music lovers and clown lovers, you wouldn’t expect much overlap. But Toronto Masque Theatre makes these groups unlikely bedfellows with Arlecchino Allegro, a wacky evening blending highbrow compositions and lowbrow humour.
“On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it should work,” performer David-Benjamin Tomlinson says. “But it really does. It’s a show that celebrates classical music while at the same time taking the piss out of it.”
Tomlinson hosts, as his clown alter ego Nicholas Denoument (the petulant head of an obscure Eastern European ballet company), along with Diana Kolpak as Mina Rafaella Kalishnikova (a prima ballerina with an ego wider than her lateral rotation). The conceit is that a mysterious patron has assembled the team to pay homage to his companion. But when things go awry, they’re left scrambling and hilarity ensues.
“There’s a narrative to the evening, but there are also bits that get improvised,” he says. “But ultimately, it’s not about us taking over the show. It’s about supporting the work of the musicians.”
Not generally thought of as a clown, Tomlinson is better known as a standup comic (though he prefers “comedic storyteller”) and high-camp performer in works by Sky Gilbert and Hope Thompson. He rarely makes full-fledged red-nosed appearances, but he’s used clown as a creative tool in his work, including 2010’s Winged.
The combination of different art forms in one night isn’t simply a way of attracting diverse audiences. Tomlinson thinks classical music could benefit from a dose of clown’s irreverence. Having worked as an usher years ago at Roy Thompson Hall, he was well familiar with the city’s elite turning up in ball gowns and tuxes to hear music penned by people often as famous for substance abuse and syphilis as their enduring compositions.
So has classical music taught him anything about comedy?
“Doing this show, I’ve learned a lot about impulses that come through stillness,” he says. “As opposed to jumping out of your chair and making everything active, there’s a lot you can do as a performer by just letting the emotion play across you.”