Pandora Robertson was in a theatrical pickle. The Cleveland writer and director had an idea for a play: explore the history of the region’s real estate practices and how they often championed property values at the expense of civil rights. But she knew such dense material would be a pretty tough sell.
“I needed to figure out how to grab audiences without being preachy,” says Robertson.
While attending a 2017 workshop at the Celebration Barn Theater, South Paris, Maine’s famed center for immersive physical theater training, Robertson found her answer in a little-known, modern French form of stagecraft sure to make Cleveland audiences squirm.
The result is Central Concern, a world premiere collaboration from Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project that runs May 18 through June 8. The ambitious production traces Cleveland’s housing history, from ties between the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and eugenics to today’s redlining and foreclosures. It’s all told through a confrontational theatrical form: the French art of “bouffon.”
“Bouffon is rooted in medieval times when fools at festivals were used as a way for peasants to have a go at the authority,” says Robertson. “You can take a topic as dry and boring as buying houses and make it funny and horrifying at the same time.”
In bouffon, jester-esque actors perform an “ecstasy of mocking,” behaving in an exaggerated manner where no topic — or member of the audience — is off limits to ridicule. The actors’ costumes are padded to an extreme degree, appearing grotesque and surreal. Inspired by an ancient Roman comedy form, bouffon combines slapstick comedy, confrontational satire and audience interaction in a sublime, combative blend. It forces every audience member to confront their complicity in the play’s action.
“They look and behave like outcasts who are the bottom of the food chain grouping together for safety,” says Robertson. “They have nothing to lose, so they can say things that other people can’t.”
Robertson developed the idea as she was knee-deep in Incendiaries, her 2017 production tackling the Hough riots of the ‘60s. While researching the riots’ racist violence, she also discovered covert instances of institutionalized discrimination designed to physically segregate society through real estate practices.
“I was shocked and unnerved to discover so much of our history,” says Robertson. “Bouffon allows us to turn things around on the audience to question and mock how people get rich and prosper.”
Though technically scripted, the actors in Central Concern have great latitude. For example, don’t be surprised when an amusing song about the Van Sweringen brothers — famous for developing Shaker Heights and building the Terminal Tower — suddenly turns into something decidedly more critical of both the two railroad barons and theatergoers. Robertson guarantees a reaction, one way or another.
“Some people are going to love it, and some people really won’t,” says Robertson. “But if they’re not offended, it’s not bouffon.”