Judging from the heavy social media campaign, the goal of a show like The Art of Building a Bunker is to spark public discussion. To ignite this dialogue, creators Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia use the tool of “bouffon”, a grotesque and larger-than-life clown discipline designed to provoke its audience. A cunning bouffon can hold a mirror up to society and reveals the prejudices lurking in each of us. As with Stephen Colbert’s pundit on the Colbert Report or any of Sasha Baron Cohen’s arsenal of overblown personae (Borat, Bruno, and Ali G), performer Lazarus uses bouffon satire in his portrayal of a multi-character sensitivity training class that the narrator, Elvis, is forced to take following an unnamed gaffe at work.
Elvis is a deeply flawed individual who finds the daily stresses of dealing with people and world issues (both real and imagined) overwhelming. To escape, he builds a bunker in his basement. The validations for his xenophobic world view are ostensibly his wife (“Babe”) and child (“Baby”), although they are never seen onstage. As the show progresses you realize that his fears are entirely his own, with his family serving, however irrationally, as a justification of himself.
The show moves quickly with Lazarus deftly switching between Elvis and the touchy-feely class leader, a challenging South African, an Indian self-styled Casanova, an eroticized Latina, a seemingly autistic man, and a nearly unintelligible Asian woman, each with their own prejudices to confront over the course of the class. Lazarus’s ability to inhabit these characters is impressive and his physicality and voice work creates a distinct personality for each.
Not a show for the overly politically correct, The Art of Building a Bunker uses wild stereotypes and direct engagement with the audience to nuance the very idea of prejudice. While you may laugh in shock at the broad racial slurs, you also wind up asking yourself how your own laughter fits within Elvis’s terrified mind.
The Art of Building a Bunker plays at the Factory Theatre until November 2nd. For more information, visit factorytheatre.ca