Woodside man takes clowning very seriously

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Since 2003, comedians and New York residents Matthew Duncan and Brian Foley have been making people float, juggling plates, riding a six-foot unicycle and playing the ukulele, all without saying a word. Their silent comedic performance "Bambouk" has traveled the world, from Alaska to China, and now it is settling somewhere in between at the American Theatre of Actors in Manhattan.

In 1990, when Foley, a Woodside resident, was 14 years old, he started performing at birthday parities and festivals, one of which was the Barnum festival, which inspired him to make people laugh. Now Foley assumes the personality of Bouk, one of two clown characters in "Bambouk."

The project began when he and his partner Duncan, a Bronx resident, also known onstage as Bam, decided to make the best of their respective talents. For the past five years the pair has met with international success by making people laugh. So they must be pretty good.

The pair met in 2003 and became roommates. Both were performance artists and doing different projects at the time, but decided that they had gone as far as they could as solo artists.

"We have complementary skill sets," Foley said. "It's like that Reese's Pieces commercial. As a duo, we can take over the world."

Their show consists of traditional vaudeville-type entertainment such as magic tricks, juggling plates, flipping hats and playing the ukulele and musical saw. There is a lot of audience involvement. Duncan and Foley make sure their audience understands that there is no "fourth wall," as there is in traditional theater.

"We tell our folks in the audience that the stage extends all the way to the exits," Foley said.

The basis for their show goes back to the history of clown and theater. These two characters aren't just a couple of horn honkers. They take their occupations quite seriously and say a high level of respect for their audience is an inspiration to keep turning out the best laughs they can muster.

"The clown has been the intermediary between show and audience throughout theater's history. The clowns relieve the tension in between acts at the circus, give you a break," Foley said. He went on to explain that in theater, however, the tension is set up differently, between actors on stage interacting with each other. Their "Bambouk" borrows elements from circus, but leans more toward traditional theater in their interactions with each other.

"My character is very uppity and high-strung," Foley said. "You know, neat and tidy. Matt's is outrageous, loud, throws things around the stage and is very loud. It's about watching these two different characters working to achieve a task together," Foley said. "The joy is finding that agreement between the two. Conflict makes for great comedy."

They draw their comedic styles from the likes of comedians like Bill Irwin, Rowan Atkinson, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

And much like their humor heroes, these two keep it aesthetically simple. No elaborate costumes or decorations: just basic red clown noses and tuxes with tails. But according to Foley, that little red lump has a lot of power.

"The clown nose is the smallest mask. It changes your silhouette," he said. "Feeling it on your nose, it is a wonderful way to unlock some power. You can take over the world." Their coat tails go back to vaudeville, cabaret and European music halls, which the pair attributes as their influences.

Though the show is totally clear of any profanity or inappropriate substance, "Bambouk" is recommended for a mature audience, and not so much for children. Because it is not structured like a circus show, there are some lengthy stretches of silence and there's a good chance young children might get antsy. According to Foley, "Our target audience is us. We wrote a show that we think is funny."

Duncan and Foley are proud of the word "clown" because to them, the word is very expansive. "Some people think clowns are just for kids, but they're not. Funny is funny to anybody," Foley said.

Though he studied theater at New York University, Foley credits his clowning skills to "a misspent youth."

"Some kids want to go out and play sports or video games, but these weren't my hobbies. I taught myself to juggle three tennis balls when I was about 9 years old," he said. Besides "Bambouk," he and Duncan take on other theatrical projects when they can, or in their words, they "gig." However, the international success of "Bambouk" brings on the question of whether or not these two New York clowns want to make the show a permanent Manhattan fixture.

"Anything's possible," Foley said. "I always like to work and then go home and sleep in my own bed."

If You Go:


Date: Through April 27

Time: Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.

Location: American Theater of Actors, 314 W. 54th St., 2nd Floor, Manhattan

Cost: $30 for adults, $20 for children ages 8 to 13

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Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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