The New Bozena in California: A Visit to a Fish-Ridden, Altered Universe

The New Bozena in California: A Visit to a Fish-Ridden, Altered Universe They're just these three guys -- the red noses and maybe the horns setting them off from the average working man. They wake to a pretty normal day: they eat breakfast, go to their jobs and audition for a community theatre production of a great Estonian play, which they then present, fully costumed, for the audience.
Auditioning with the New Bozena (clowns David Costabile, Michael Dahlen and Kevin Isola).
Auditioning with the New Bozena (clowns David Costabile, Michael Dahlen and Kevin Isola).

They're just these three guys -- the red noses and maybe the horns setting them off from the average working man. They wake to a pretty normal day: they eat breakfast, go to their jobs and audition for a community theatre production of a great Estonian play, which they then present, fully costumed, for the audience.

Except nothing in their world seems quite normal. Battles must be fought with tenacious tablecloths, malicious pencils and a disembodied dictatorial director in a place that seemingly can only be experienced fully with the tongue.

Welcome to the world of the New Bozena, a strange comic landscape created by actors David Costabile (who goes by the stage name of Ramon), Michael Dahlen (Spiv Westenberg) and Kevin Isola (Revhanavaan Sahaanahanadaan), under the direction of Rainn Wilson.

Formed by the quartet in a New York University third-year graduate class entitled "Free Play," the New Bozena spent a two-month run Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1996. The group then went on a two-year hiatus while Costabile opened in Titanic, Dahlen returned to the New York company of Blue Man Group and Isola went Off-Broadway with The Water Children. Now they are making their West Coast debut at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage on Hollywood's Theatre Row in hot pursuit of what Wilson calls "the big TV deal."

Not bad for a trio of clowns. These gentleman aren't any bunch of Bozos or Fool Moon New Vaudevillians, with whom they are often compared. There were no years spent as mimes in Europe, or stints with Ringling Brothers; just some masque and commedia del l'arte classes, some Shakespeare and Moliere. And a workshop attended by Wilson and led by master clowning teacher Gates McFadden (better known as Dr. Beverly Crusher on TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation"). Among the exercises she put him through was an audition sequence, which evolved into a pivotal scene in the New Bozena.

"That audition exercise puts the clown characters on the spot and the stakes are very high. The character is really revealed through the gamble of those circumstances," Wilson said.

And it's damn funny watching Ramon make a pathetic but earnest attempt at magic, Spiv play "I've Got a Nasty Rash" on a homemade drum fashioned from buckets and a mannequin's legs and Rev act out his "Big Show" featuring whole Twinkie consumption and ham head-butting.

Creating the clowns that could comfortably -- or uncomfortably - perform these rites took a lot of improvisation. "It was trial and error completely... we started goofing off, trying to make each other laugh. Whatever really made us laugh -- a lot -- we kept," Dahlen said.

He and Isola found Spiv and Rev pretty quickly while self-proclaimed "remedial clown" Costabile took a little longer to dig out Ramon. Once they had them, however, they knew it.

What they didn't quite achieve was a physical place for the clowns to live and work in. After putting together an absurd do-it-yourself set design of home-made flats stapled with refuse wallpaper, they hired designer Chris Muller to flesh out their space. Among his contributions is an on-going fish theme (many of which were purchased--cheaply--on NYC's Canal Street).

And why fish?

"The New Bozena is something else other than just those three guys. Those fish sort of embody the beginning of the backside of their lives," Costabile explained.

Yeah, sounds great. Plus, of course, "Fish are funny."

Perfecting the funniness has led to some changes since the Bozena brought their brand of "slacker vaudeville" to NYC. According to Costabile, mostly they've cut bits, but made one addition -- a tug-of-war dream ballet for Ramon in the Estonian play, choreographed by a friend and former Titanic castmate of his, Mindy Cooper.

But the biggest change of all has been discovering different laughs with the Californians. Certainly Los Angelino audiences beat New Yorkers in one quality -- niceness. Take, for instance, during the audition scene where the director's voice berates Ramon for having wasted his time when the theatre company already has a much better magician anyway, the audience is clearly sympathetic. Not so with New Yorkers. Says Costabile, "People here really take it to heart -- they're really deeply sad for him. In New York, there was this sadistic edge about how it's great to see this sort of shy, innocent guy really destroyed."

Now having played both sides of the country, the Bozena seek to enter homes across the US on television. There has been talk with MTV and others, but, as Dahlen observed, "People here talk a lot." So, as of now, no contracts have been signed, but they remain hopeful.

After all, if a Fish-ridden altered universe like Ally McBeal's can exist on the airwaves, why not the fish-ridden altered universe of the New Bozena?

-- By Christine Ehren