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(Photo by Asher Svidensky)

Ofir Nahari, the clown performance artist, takes on Dionysus. (Photo by Asher Svidensky)

When he steps out of the car wearing sharp aviator sunglasses, his thick dark hair twisted into a stylish man bun, I think: that guy does not look like a clown. And Ofir Nahari, I soon realize, is not the clown of your Bozo/Ringling Bros./Stephen King’s It variety. 

The Tel Aviv-based Israeli artist is better described as a contemporary clown performer, a performance artist who uses the aesthetics of clowning — the nose, makeup and costuming — and mime to examine real-life situations from a childlike perspective. Who better to play the title role in an original adaptation of a classic Greek tragedy? 

Stick with me here. 

Local director Michael Haverty and playwright Margaret Baldwin have long been tossing around ideas for an adaptation of Euripides’ classic work The Bacchae. The tragedy centers on Dionysus — the god of wine, fertility and general debauchery — and his return to Thebes, where he intends to avenge his mother’s death and punish the government for preventing its people from worshipping him. 

Baldwin, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies at Kennesaw State University, has taught the tragedy for years and says she’s drawn to its “big questions.” With its complex characters and mystifying ending, Haverty and Baldwin knew they wanted to do something original with The Bacchae, something collaborative.

Nahari performed at 7 Stages in 2013. (Photo by Hadar Levi)

Nahari performed at 7 Stages in 2013. (Photo by Hadar Levi)

In November 2013, Haverty saw Nahari’s one-man performance No(se)onenowhere (now titled Amassan) at 7 Stages Theater, and immediately called Baldwin. “I found our Dionysus!” he told her. “You gotta come see this guy.” 

Baldwin and Haverty agreed it was Nahari’s incredible precision as a mover, as well as his ability to show vulnerability on stage, that would make him the perfect Dionysus. They appealed to KSU and 7 Stages for support and raised the money to bring Nahari to Atlanta for a three-week residency. 

Since his arrival, Nahari has collaborated with Baldwin, Haverty and krump choreographer Ismail Ibn Connor to develop material and shape the adaptation they have titled The Followers. Nahari continues to lead workshops for a select group of KSU theater students. 

A workshop at 7 Stages is free and open to the public on Sunday at 2 p.m. Space is limited; email to reserve a participatory or observational spot.

Baldwin says the workshops have been eye-opening for her students, many of who are freshmen with only high school musical performances under their belts. “He’s really cracking them open,” she says. With physical challenges and improvisational directives, Nahari says he seeks to “research the human being” and “to understand who these people are” as their “partner, not their teacher.” For all the collaborators, the process feels entirely new. “Right now we’re kneading,” says Baldwin, while the choreographer, writer, director and actors flesh out the piece’s language and structure. 

But I still wonder, why clowning? Why should Dionysus be represented this way? Nahari anticipates my question and asks it for me: “So what is clowning?”

He begins, “I’m looking for the person on the inside, under the red nose. Everybody thinks the red nose is so funny and so easy, so I’ll just put it on and make some faces. It doesn’t work like that.” 

Nahari launches into a detailed description of Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 movie City Lights. Chaplin falls in love with a blind woman and saves money for an operation to make her see. “Inside the story, the way he gets the money is so funny,” Nahari says. But his schemes land him in jail. Years later, after having the operation, the woman finds him poor, begging on the street and recognizes him only when she touches his hand to give him money. Famously, he tells her, “Now you can see.” 

“For me, this is clowning,” Nahari says. “You must take something from your life and find a way to live it.” The story will be sad, but it will be more like a child’s sadness, self-focused and unencumbered by life’s larger questions. Like Dionysus, children are single-minded in their quest for attention, praise and validation. 

But Baldwin says the story also raises larger social questions. “What does it mean when the god you follow — who is a god of ecstasy, fertility and life reborn — turns out to be a god of vengeance? Do you continue to follow him?” Baldwin asks. 

As he is apt to do, Dionysus creates chaos in the play, which eventually leads to extreme violence. In light of the growing influence of ISIS in a climate of religious fanaticism, The Bacchae begs the question: How do we take responsibility and respond? Baldwin points to the play’s conclusion, where the chorus is left confused by Dionysus’ refusal to offer compassion. Thus, she says, a central and culturally relevant theme arises: “The gods should be above men.” But they often don’t behave that way.

“It’s such rich material,” Baldwin says, “I get excited thinking about it. And a little terrified.” 

Nahari reminds her that it’s good to be terrified. He likes struggle and hates it when performers “act” on stage. 

Once, he had members of a dance company run in circles for 40 minutes before rehearsing their piece. Exhausted and angry with him for inflicting such pain, they worked slowly, used their voice and eyes, and focused entirely on the task at hand. The result? They found a connection between real life and performance, a place where the two aren’t mutually exclusive. “You cannot dance on stage,” he says, “you need to live on stage.”

Stay tuned. After four years in the making, The Followers is tentatively scheduled to appear in the 2017-18 seasons at KSU and 7 Stages Theater.

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