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Swirls of Fun: A Spaghetti Western

Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse

Date: Sat February 22, 2014 10:00am

A Spaghetti WesternThere's no pasta consumed onstage in the scaled-down family version of A Spaghetti Western, a comedy set on the frontier that, in part, pays homage to two Italian film icons: director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone. Nonetheless, the Feb. 22 performance at the Freight & Salvage will feature great music and silliness, promises Slim Chance, founder of ClownSnotBombs, the innovative Berkeley-based circus troupe behind the production.

"In the full version we actually eat spaghetti as a cure-all for the things that pain you," said Chance, in a telephone interview.

Accompanied by an original musical score, A Spaghetti Western follows eight characters blazing a path westward while chasing the American dream but leaving large piles of pasta in their wake, "revealing the paradox of human progress," according to the troupe's website.

This Saturday's noodleless matinee, while tasty and filling, Chance assured, is more of a variety show with jugglers, clowns jump roping on unicycles, and cowgirls and cowboys on stilts. Faeble Klevman directs the ensemble who easily shift between roles during the show, one minute deftly executing an act of daring physical comedy, the next minute playing the accordion or juggling cowboy hats.

Leone's celluloid spins on the American West not only launched the acting career of actor and director Clint Eastwood but defined the Spaghetti Western genre in the 1960s. Eastwood didn't inspire A Spaghetti Western, according to Chance. "Not per se, but definitely Sergio Leone and his overall sensibilities did," said Chance, better-known to his mother by the moniker Douglas McNeely.

He cited in particular Leone's 1975 spaghetti western They Call Me Nobody, which starred Henry Fonda and Terrence Hill. "It was real slapstick," said Chance, a veteran of the first Iraq war, who double majored in Arts For Social-Change and Anti-psychiatry before finding his calling as a clown. Along the way he taught himself how to escape from a straight jacket: "I discovered I was double-jointed."

The Spaghetti Western genre, so called by dismissive foreign critics who thought the films poor cousins of Hollywood westerns, were low-budget productions, usually employing a few relatively unknown American actors, which were filmed in Rome's Cinecittà's studios and in Spain. In these films the West was portrayed as a stark landscape of whitewashed villages, lonely dogs, and whistling winds in which grizzled villains squared off against squinty heroes in ponchos and bandanas. According to the Spaghetti Western Data Base, an online almanac of all things spaghetti western, Italians call such films (westerns Italian style). Popular in Japan, they are there called Macaroni westerns, the website said.

Music plays a major role in A Spaghetti Western, said Chance, as Morricone's score played a key role in Leone's western films. Joining the ranks of similar celebrated film and music dynamic duos — think Hitchcock & Herrmann or Fellini & Rota — Leone & Morricone's first effort with Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), showcased the composer's music, which was as unusual as the director's visuals. Eventually Morricone scored over 30 Italian westerns, employing an eclectic group of sounds, layering trumpet, electric guitar, or harp with whistles, cracking whips, and gunshots.

"The music was instrumental in setting the feeling that you're in this place," said Chance, who founded ClownSnotBombs in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "It [the music] was a way of transporting us to that frontier, a place where you can do anything with your imagination and a little bit of work. Overall, the script, the acting, the music all worked together."

That's what ClownSnotBombs members sought to achieve in creating A Spaghetti Western, Chance said. "The show is not a parody of the Sergio Leone film. What we're trying to convey is emotions and levity ― while going for the slapstick."

Journalist Molly Colin writes about the arts and cultural trends.