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Arts & Culture on the Pacific...

Los Trios Ringbarkus, as an escalating number of people who like to explore the theater netherworld are finding out, is neither a three-ring circus nor a mariachi band on a budget. They are two Australian comics of the “New Vaudeville” variety named Neill Gladwin and Stephen Kearney, who love nothing better than considering the possibilities of what a box of crackers or bread rolls can bring out in them and in a room of captive patrons.

In another era, they would have been locked up for (at least) disturbing the peace, or, as goes the title of their show at Theatre/Theater, “Rampant Stupidity.”

But unlike their homeland’s ecological heritage, an ark of the world’s strangest animals unable to breed with their Asian neighbors, Gladwin and Kearney have picked up on a host of international influences: Punk’s audience-assault style. Samuel Beckett’s perpetual see-saw between the will to speak and death. Buster Keaton’s physical daring.

“We’re the product of the disgusting practices of our progenitors, stuck in British-run penal colonies,” deadpanned Kearney about the first white Aussies.

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So it wasn’t surprising when Los Trios, who seem capable of anything, picked up a reporter and photographer at the Hollywood Pep Boys and sped away in an ancient but spirited white Cadillac to the Shangri-La of Griffith Observatory. “We want to eat lunch where Arnold ripped out that guy’s heart in ‘The Terminator,’ ” explained the tall, blond Gladwin, smiling to his back-seat guests.

As Kearney--shorter with spikey, cropped hair--lost rubber through the switchbacks, they explained that Griffith Park is where they like to “deposit” their mates from Down Under without a map, “so they get a real taste for L.A.”

These two have their L.A. tastebuds well conditioned. Although “Rampant Stupidity” only opened in early January (after a three-performance preview in December to an utterly unsuspecting public, plus a few critics), Kearney and Gladwin have actually been peddling their wares in The Industry for nearly two years.

They didn’t quite want to admit that Hollywood had little notion of how to employ their talents for comic mayhem, but they were bemused at studio legalisms.

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“As we developed material for them,” Gladwin recalled, “they started claiming ownership over our characters . It got to the point that if Stephen had his sleeve up, then it was ours, not theirs. If my collar was crumpled, it was theirs, not ours. Scary.”

Yes, even these radically inclined, black comedians of the night do auditions for TV pilots during the day (“Remember your lines, Steve?” “Got your American accent, Neill?”), though they’ve been turned down by the Carson show. It all helps their act, they insist. Gladwin: “Everything in life, everything, is a performance art piece.” Then Kearney adds: “And not a very good one, at that.”

Besides, for Gladwin at least, Los Angeles strongly recalls their native Melbourne: “Nice climate, large suburban houses with big lawns, fantastic Greek food.”

Pals at Rusden State College, they found themselves one day turning a promotion for a colleague’s upcoming performance into a performance itself, “something like ‘Mona Lisa’ with accordion and drums,” said Kearney.

The act built from routine to routine. In the atmosphere of rowdy, post-modern Melbourne vaudeville in the late ‘70s, their performance was much ruder and more tasteless, they insisted, than what they do now. That’s when they were a trio, with dwarf performer Gareth Walpole. (The name comes from ringbarking a tree--stripping the bark at the base--making it die. “That’s essentially what happens with our act,” Gladwin once told an interviewer.) Club dates led to opening acts for groups such as INXS and Men at Work.

“Gareth would be in a gorilla suit,” said Gladwin, “Stephen would play wild drums. People would laugh just staring at us.

“But now, can you believe that people are coming expecting A Serious Night in the Theater, and in five minutes, they know they’re in trouble?”

“What they often don’t get,” explained Kearney, “is our deep sense of outrage at just about everything, and the ways we twist that into something that works on stage. They want to be entertained in the old ways. It makes it doubly hard because when you turn pro, you sometimes forget what made something funny funny . Sometimes, this town only adds to making you forget it.”

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But then, the strangest things will happen at Theatre/Theater, and Los Trios will once again be reminded why they are Los Trios. Such as the audience members who get so immersed in the spirit of “Rampant Stupidity” they’re drawn into the act (take the bit where they untie and toss around an innocent man’s shoe), become part of the show and even hold it hostage (by taking one of Kearney’s shoes).

“Wonderful,” Kearney smirks, “they’re as outraged as we are.”

This special report was edited by David Kishiyama, an assistant Calendar editor


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