John Steinbeck's Depression-era classic Of Mice and Men has never been noted for gut-busting laughs, but perhaps that's just because it didn't have enough clowns.
After all, Of Mice and Morro and Jasp — a 2012 Winnipeg Fringe favourite back for a run at Manitoba Theatre for Young People — manages to keep the (very) broad strokes of Steinbeck's novella and still deliver plenty of giggles for older kids and adults alike.
In this metatheatrical version, clown sisters Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee) are down on their luck but have dreams of owning their own farm — a place they can be simple clowns and Morro, the gawky and irrepressibly cheery sister in the duo, can have lots and lots of fluffy bunnies.
Jasp, the more prim and proper clown, gently tries to steer Morro toward that dream and also keep her on the path in their mission to act out Of Mice and Men.
If you haven't read Of Mice and Men, don't panic (neither has Morro, it turns out, to Jasp's great frustration). There are jokes that will work better if you have, but the show also works just fine if you haven't.
Drawing, however loosely, from such dark material, Of Mice and Morro and Jasp has a tricky tonal balancing act, and largely pulls it off. There are moments where that balance feels a bit off — some scenes (like Jasp's discovery of the dead mice Morro has been carrying around) feel like particularly dark turns in a clown show being presented for a younger audience.
But in other spots, the show embraces that tonal variation to great effect. Morro's eventual realization of how their story — based as it is on Steinbeck's — must end is a surprisingly touching moment.
For all that, though, it is still a clown show — and in spite of occasional dark beats, it's delightfully funny. Co-creators Annis and Lee have played the clown sisters in a series of shows over many years, and their connection with the characters and each other shows in their finely honed comedic performances.
Some of the references may not connect with the tween and teen audience this show is aimed at — most of them haven't likely read Of Mice and Men. They also probably don't know who Philip Glass is, but Jasp's interpretive dance inspired by the avant-garde composer is still goofy enough to deliver laughs.
The junior high crowd at the school performance I saw initially seemed perhaps a bit unsure what to make of the awkward, self-referential comedy of the clown duo, but were soon drawn in by the show's silly charm.
And adults who are willing to let themselves enjoy that silly humour (and who will play along with a bit of gentle audience participation) will enjoy this hour-long romp as much as the younger audience members.
"Tragic endings are the worst," Morro grumbles at one point.
Sure enough, Of Mice and Morro and Jasp leaves its audience with a charming message about the importance of having a dream — and the importance of fluffy, fluffy bunnies.
There is, after all, always light to be found even in the darkest stories.
Of Mice and Morro and Jasp runs at Manitoba Theatre for Young People until Nov. 18 and will tour schools in Manitoba until Dec. 15.