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Theater review: 'Clown Bar' is giggles and groans galore

For the next two weekends, the Underground has been transformed into an actual Clown Bar, which makes perfect sense since the clown noir comedy "Clown Bar" opened there Thursday night.

Patrons can purchase "insult beers" from the caustic bartender, Shotgun McGhee (Nathan Payne), and assorted drinks that you can apparently order "extra funny," delivered by Petunia (Cheryl Skafte), a tart-tongued, bubble-blowing waitress.

But be forewarned. If you think you can show up and avoid a close encounter of the clown kind, you are probably mistaken. There is always some clown taking advantage of an open seat at your table and the play's blocking covers the entire bar, which means it is being performed in — wait for it — "Surround Clown."

(Rim shot)

Ex-clown turned cop Happy Mahoney (iron-jawed Jonathan Manchester) shows up to investigate the murder of his brother, Timmy (slack-jawed Luke Moravec), who might be dead but still shows up in flashbacks that provide clues to his untimely demise.

Happy wants to meet with Bobo (Jody Kujawa in full gangster mode), the Clown Boss who runs the Clown Bar, but Twinkles (Alec Schroeder in full breathless mode) does not think that would be a good idea. And what about the sore subject of Blinky Fatale, Happy's ex-gal?

I heard this was a pun-heavy show, but it was more sexual innuendo and big words with four-letter words buried in them. A lot of the humor has to do with the conventions of detective noir, as when Happy unleashes a long list of hard-boiled clichés.

Surprisingly, "Clown Bar" is funny in a lot of different ways. There is the odd mix of songs sung periodically by Dusty (an endearingly sad sack Mike Pederson), the sad-faced Hobo clown, accompanied by Keys (KT Magnolia) on the piano. There is a clever bit involving the world of mime and Manchester's deadpan delivery when he interrogates one clown or another. Sometimes what is funny is the fact that nothing is funny.

There are some impressive clown faces that the cast has come up with for their characters. However, while I am not afflicted with coulrophobia, Ashlee Hartwig's Giggles in her harlequin outfit had a painted grimace-like grin that reminded me too much of Twisty the Clown from "American Horror Story" and creeped me out.

Plus she carried a baseball bat and hovered around my table. A lot.

Director Robert Lee has come up with a prologue of sorts, with "The Timmy the Dead Clown Show," that sets the comic tone for the evening. Opening night, there were also burlesque routines turned in by a pair of Duluth Dolls, Aurora Borealis and Miss Creant.

As an ecdysiast, Danie Jiménez's Blinky Fatale has gotta have a gimmick, and it turns out she has a whole string of them. Then there is Popo (Lacy Habdas), who provides a new answer to the classic question, "What is black and white and red all over?"

Meanwhile, back at the play, can Happy solve the crime, revenge his brother and get back the girl?

Forget it, Happy. It's Clown Bar.

If you go

• What: "Clown Bar" by Adam Szymkowicz

• Where: The Underground, 506 W Michigan St.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through August 8

• Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at duluthplayhouse.org

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