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Clowns Like Me

A very huggable Scott Ehrenpreis opens our eyes to the absolutely necessary conversation about mental illness in an honest and vulnerable performance.

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Scott Ehrenpreis in a scene from Jason Cannon’s “Clowns Like Me” at the DR2 Theatre (Press photo: Rebecca J Michelson)

Over the course of 17 brief scenes, we are invited into the life of actor Scott Ehrenpreis in the most exposed and vulnerable way – as he discusses his living with mental illness…as he puts it, “Like, lots of mental illness.” He brings to mind the Facebook memes where we watch the young man holding up a cardboard sign offering free hugs. He may also make you think of a sad beagle puppy that just yearns to be held.

Ehrenpreis’ Clowns Like Me is sad, but true, and with the help of writer and director Jason Cannon, the brutally honest tale finds all the humor that’s possible. Within a very few minutes we are introduced to all the tools to discuss an obvious manifestation of his obsessive-compulsive disorder: cleanliness. Out come the goggles, gloves, cleaning rag, spray bottle and his co-stars Swiffer and Dirt Devil in this elaborate Ginger and Fred dance to clean where the average person would see no dirt.

This performance is meant to be as instructional as it is entertaining. “The compulsive actions – like constantly washing your hands or checking and re-checking your locks are locked or your stove is off – those actions are not the actual disorder…The disorder is the onslaught of intrusive thoughts.” A voice inside his head is dismantling his trust and his confidence. The voice gets drowned out by obsessing over something else – the pound of dirt per square foot of carpet, be that the carpet on the floor, or on his hirsute body. Hence his referring to his body as a chia pet.

Things the “neurotypical” individual wouldn’t think twice about is the fodder for obsession for an individual with a mental illness. The unconcerned average person in the audience wouldn’t think twice about using a coaster but be careful that the person with a cleanliness obsession doesn’t hurl one at you when you ignore their house rules. Further, a harmless aphorism such as “A place for everything, and everything in its place” takes on a whole new meaning. Period!

Collecting is in our nature, or it’s not. Businesses like The Bradford Exchange or Book-of-the-Month Club wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a niche for them to fill. Taking that to the extreme, we’ve also got our TV shows about hoarders…and we’ve all watched or at least landed on them while channel surfing. Add OCD to the mix, and you have a person who will need to be at the store when the doors open so they can have the latest releases of DVD movies. Enter Scott Ehrenpreis! And his enabler – Eddie the overnight manager at Wal-Mart who would gradually start hooking him up at midnight so as not to make him pace at home until store opening the next day. But it escalates. “No DVD was ever enough. No amount of DVDs was ever enough. Titles didn’t matter. Genres didn’t matter. Stars didn’t matter. Whatever the new release was, I had to have it. I had to have more. I had to drown out that voice in my head.” For the young man that obsessed over special features, bonus material and extra discs, this road ultimately led to shoplifting to feed his need.

Cannon’s writing here is truly a feat in itself. We willingly follow Ehrenpreis from scene to scene silently knowing and sometimes dreading where we know it will go. The performance is so honest we don’t care. We just want to be with him. A scene at a sleepaway summer karate camp where a teacher dares Scott to hit him in front of all the other kids can only end in embarrassment but there we go. A lunch date after a sex worker he meets through Backpage.com sleeps over couldn’t possibly happen, could it? Of course not, and our hearts break for him nonetheless.

Ehrenpreis may have felt too close to the story – he is his own material – to have written it himself. Diagnosing mental illness has come a long way from when Ehrenpreis was growing up. He survived misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis – from being overmedicated with ADD, then again with ADHD until at age 25 being correctly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (autistic spectrum)and Bipolar Disorder (manic depression) and Social Anxiety Disorder (social phobia). The most important thing he learned is that “Aspies” have a gift – “We are really, really good at one particular thing at the expense of everything else.” For Ehrenpreis, it was acting – storytelling here, so when he pretends to be someone else he can finally be seen for who he really is.

Just as important to Ehrenpreis as the DVD collection is his collection of antique clown figurines and toys. This stems from theme presents he and his brothers received at Hanukkah. While one brother was obsessed with baseball cards and another with arks of stuffed animals, Ehrenpreis got his clowns. He philosophizes on how in the earliest societies, the roles of village priest and village clown (or fool) were performed by the same individual. “How much more fun would services be if the rabbi, while reading from the Torah, also wore a rainbow wig and made balloon animals?”  “I’m a clown. I’m…odd. Sad. Alone. Touched…by the divine.” He takes out a red clown nose and faces the audience. “See, this is how I feel when I’m out in the world. People staring. People wondering. People taking that half step back, because something about me is…off.”

Scott Ehrenpreis in a scene from Jason Cannon’s “Clowns Like Me” at the DR2 Theatre (Press photo: Rebecca J Michelson)

One of the more touching moments in Clowns Like Me comes in a very unlikely place. When he gets arrested for shoplifting, he shares a cell with Jimmy, a man in jail for non-payment of traffic tickets. Jimmy may realize something is off and proceeds to calm down the young tearful Scott by telling him jokes, or rather really bad puns in an effort to calm him until his father can come to take him home. It was one of those rare occasions where a stranger engaged him rather than backed away.

The full picture wouldn’t be complete without the lows. Ehrenpreis describes “the worst thing I’ve ever done” – following the episode of shoplifting, he steals money from his father’s wallet to purchase DVDs. When his father confronts him about the theft, Ehrenpreis denies it. “It got ugly. I confessed. And everything…broke.” His parents kick him out and he finds himself in a ratty motel. He leaves a long expletive-filled rant on their voicemail. He realizes every “I hate you” is not necessarily meant for them. The “I hate yous” are for the world, for God, and even for himself. He didn’t speak to his parents for four years. To this day his parents don’t really remember the tirade. For them it was all part of the chaos of living everyday by going online praying they didn’t see his name come up in police blotters. They lived their lives not knowing where he was as he was living on the fringe, mostly in dangerous or, at the very least, sketchy situations. Ultimately, they just wanted their son back. “See, those of us with mental illness aren’t the only ones who suffer. Those who love us, and stand by us, and try to help us often suffer just as much. They certainly feel just as powerless.”

Cannon’s production is complemented by simple touches in design. Cannon provides the scenic elements: a 9 x 12 area rug, a stool, a trunk filled with cleaning supplies, and two fabric-covered bookcases (revealed later as one filled with DVDs, the other representative of Ehrenpreis’ vast clown collection), as well as the costume selection: a dark blue shirt, khaki slacks and sneakers. The simplicity allows for more focus on the story we are there to hear. Xiangfu Xiao’s lighting is also simple, mostly bright with quick almost negligible blackouts to take us from one short scene to the other. Sean Hagerty’s sound design succeeds in guiding us through the despair inside Ehrenpreis’ head as he explains what a person with mental illness hears as a running soundtrack.

Clowns Like Me, for all its harrowing moments at times, is about the power of love and redemption. It is a haunting and deeply personal one-man show, so much so that we can often be so carried away by the conversational tone we can forget this is a piece of theatre, and not just some guy talking to us about living with mental illness. The play proper is always followed by a talkback, further taking us into the conversation of understanding and engaging with those who suffer. “Remember that I am not my diagnosis. No one is. Remember that I am not disabled. I am differently abled. I am an actor…You…are not alone…We…are not alone.”

Clowns Like Me (extended through July 31, 2024)

DR2 Theatre

103 East 15th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.telecharge.com

Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission

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About Tony Marinelli (58 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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