The evocatively entitled Befrdfgth doesn’t open with a fanfare, a burst of music or even a lighting cue. Instead, the curtain at the back of the stage twitches, almost imperceptibly, and a nose is glimpsed in the ensuing gap. The curtain balloons, getting bigger and bigger until it’s moving shapelessly among us in the audience. A hand emerges, snatches up a woman’s bag, and the curtain shrinks once more to the back of the stage.
When Doctor Brown eventually appears from beneath that inflatable black mass, resplendent in kaftan, headscarf and fulsome beard, he stares at us with all the wonder of a child seeing snow for the first time. After trying out a few moves, a spot of weightlifting, boxing and a half-hearted bullfight, he ups the ante, delivering an eye-wateringly authentic mimed blow-job and pulling the entrails out of the bull’s stomach.
It’s the level of detail that makes the good doc’s manoeuvres so compelling, not to mention his fearlessness in interacting with the audience and his ability to get us playing along. Whether shining a beaming spectator’s bald head or enticing another to spank him hard on the bottom, there’s a wonderful pervading sense of collusion in something silly and naughty but life-affirming at the same time.
The pièce de résistance is a routine on an imaginary motorbike with the audience coerced into creating the sounds of a bell, a horn and a gong, the sound and actions increasing until our hero is dancing a frenzied tarantella in the middle of the stage.
It’s a brilliant show, a slow build that goes out on a high and, while probably carefully crafted, gives the impression of being completely weightless, off the cuff and entirely free from the burdens of everyday life.
The latest show from Doctor Brown, aka American mime artist Phil Burgers, creeps up on you. There’s no big opening, no voice-over introduction; in fact the show has begun before the audience even knows it. Burgers is a silent, physical minimalist; his black-gloved hands, raised in the surrender position, are his props, helping to transform him into silly, occasionally dark characters in scenes of bullfighting, parental abandonment and unnerving sexual encounters. The intensity builds steadily throughout, and so do the laughs, until the final act, where the true magic happens, in a celebratory finale that has the audience in hysterics. Thrillingly unpredictable and gloriously funny.
It starts off with a traditional bit of crowd irritation: kicking people in the arse as they file in, nicking drinks and shopping bags: the usual Doctor Brown experience. Without a fanfare, the show fades into existence, with Brown miming out some bizarre scenes, often themed with sex and torture, plus a long sequence involving deadbeat dads of the bovine variety.
It's all very good, but the bare lights and absence of music can sometimes make you wish you were watching a mime with a bit more razzmatazz, like The Boy With Tape On His Face. And then something happens. One especially brilliant piece of audience interaction sets this show on fire. We rewind to the start and see it played out again in a giddy manner that bends time, space and the minds of the audience.
It's a triumph of imagination, with the Doctor bringing his strange inner dreamscapes to life in vivid technicolor using nothing but mime (and one luckless audience member). The Doctor wears an odd costume throughout, which makes him look like a cross between a clown and a wizard. Turns out he is both of those things.
Edinburgh 2012 will be remembered for its Lunatic Fringe. Shows that have pushed the definition of comedy to breaking point have created the greatest buzz and Dr Brown, alias American physical clown Phil Burgers, has made the biggest noise despite being almost silent. His barnstorming wordless performance Befrdfgth might befuddle spellcheck software but it deservedly picked up a Foster’s Comedy Award nomination.
The robe-clad Brown plays havoc with expectations from the very start when he romps around the room stealing possessions like a malevolent Mr Bean.
From there he initially seems to be essaying random mimes. Something biblical, something vulgar, something violent. Yet gradually a narrative forms and when an audience member gets involved the fun hits top gear.
This is the most fearless, full-impact festival appearance I have seen in recent years.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then you can’t be watching Doctor Brown.
We all know the perils of taking a seat in the front row at a comedy gig. But with this compellingly dark physical-comedy act you’re not even safe as you enter the room, let alone when you cunningly cocoon yourself in the middle of a row halfway back.
That alone, I’ll grant you, doesn’t make it a must-see. Audience participation is often a trial. So why is this the strangest, funniest, most exciting hour I’ve spent at the Fringe so far? Because Doctor Brown is giving us comedy at its most properly unruly, clowning at its purest.
His menace is perfectly pitched: he’s mischievous enough to give us a frisson of fear as he climbs into the crowd, but he’s never malicious. And if he steps over the line, he plays his strongest suit: a hands-up, “I surrender” gesture that disarms at 20 paces. Anything could happen. And we’re safe as houses.
This is the fourth Fringe for Phil Burgers, an American who trained in clowning at the Philippe Gaulier school in Paris before creating Doctor Brown. This show, unhelpfully named Befrdfgth, won him the top award, the Barry, at the Melbourne Comedy Festival this year. I can see why.
The Doctor is a lord of misrule, painting pictures in our heads as he plays both a wild-eyed beggar and a soldier; both a bullfighter and his bull. And when the bullfighter then cuts open that bull and steps into its body and things get more peculiar still, his virtuosity keeps it all vivid.
His personality gives the show its charge. Looking like some sort of dark priest, in black robes and black gloves, his beard concealing half of his face, he relies on his eyes to convey both determination and innocence.
So when he makes some sounds — nonsense words, naturally — we go along with the call-and-response.
When he goes on a pretend bike ride, we are all happy to provide the sound effects.
And when he ropes in a volunteer to mirror his play-acting, he makes us realise that his nonsense is densely devised and closely controlled.
He’s a strong flavour, not for everyone. I saw some pursed lips breaking up the sea of smiles around me.
I found last year’s show hard work. But this one strikes me as a stunning mix of anarchy and symmetry.
So I also went to see his children’s show, Dr Brown Brown Brown Brown Brown and his Singing Tiger. It’s milder, but almost as good. A man in a tiger suit sings narration as Dr B once again hits the sweet spot between chaos and control. Just with less violence and no sex. A joy for all ages.
Befrdfgth takes its audience on a subtle journey. Beginning with Dr Brown (Phil Burgers) ludicrously peering out at the audience from behind the curtain, even kicking them as they pass. This unsettling start continues as he makes his way into the audience in a ridiculous fashion, hidden under a large curtain, to steal an audience member's scarf. The poor victim is then encouraged to get it back; it's not so easy of course and a game ensues, ending with the member of the audience being dragged behind the curtain. The audience are laughing but it's all so unsettling, and when the lady returns to her seat, visibly shaken, the atmosphere has a very peculiar tension. It all increases as he comes into the audience again and I can hear the collective wish being chanted in unison with the collective mind of the audience, 'Please not me, don't get me'.
But in a fantastic twist of tone Burgers emerges slowly from the curtain with his hands in the air and a fearful expression on his face. He seems to be mouthing words silently and shaking his head as if to say, 'I'm sorry I have no idea what I'm doing'. Without ever uttering a word he then moves through a series of irreverent sketches, all executed in excellent mime, and all of them entirely ridiculous; a beggar woman who asks for a coin but has no pocket to put it in, a man who gets inside a cow then falls in love with another cow who bears him a child.
As the show goes on the realisation slowly sweeps over the audience – it's OK because he's playing, he's just being silly. Then the audience relaxes.
He asks the audience to play too: we have to provide the sound effects to his sketch of a ride through the park. As our collective comfort grows we feel the urge to play along, to be silly and to laugh at ourselves. Burgers himself couldn't help laughing as he asked the audience to all copy him in speaking gobbledegook – a wonderful moment of connection between performer and spectators.
This freedom to play is then taken to another level as he gets a member of the audience to take a role on stage as the son of the cow from the previous sketch. He, the audience member, becomes more and more involved as he is asked to perform a sketch on a bike in the park while we provide the sound effects and Burgers takes a seat in the audience.
This is a real highlight of the show as we watch someone playing, with complete freedom to be silly in front of a room of strangers. It is entirely liberating, a shared game that we're all playing.
Before we know it we're at the end, gentle music is playing and Dr Brown is preparing to leave. We see him humbly thanking each member of the audience who got involved, obviously very appreciative that they agreed to play. He blows kisses at them in his gratitude.
We then begin to feel a strong emotional connection to this man whom we all feared just an hour ago. I even hear a gentle 'awww' from the audience as he mimes giving us all a hug, and I feel we've all actively taken part in something special and worthwhile as the show draws to a surprisingly poignant close. The experience was entirely unique, utterly inspiring and won't be long forgotten.
They say silence is golden and this could not ring truer with Doctor Brown’s befrdfgth – the name alone should spark enough curiosity to get a ticket! This award-winning wordless show is one of the strangest most ridiculous theatrical acts I have ever seen.
The tension and anticipation that builds in the first ten minutes really foreshadows what is to come that is us, the audience, waiting with bated breath both in trepidation and excitement at what the cloaked wizard-esque Doctor Brown will do next. The show starts off innocently enough – a sneaky bag-snatching and a playful game of tag with members of the audience. We are lulled into a false sense of security that this is all the show is going to be about.
When the Doctor finally reveals himself we are thrown headfirst in to the rabbit hole, very much like Alice in Wonderland. Through animated hand gestures and often comical facial expressions, Doctor Brown embodies a number of characters and we are transported to many odd places, each one getting weirder than the next. It is not immediately clear what is happening, or what Doctor Brown is trying to tell us. This is definitely a show that requires you to have an open mind and allow your imagination to run wild.
Doctor Brown challenges the boundaries of theatre and breaks the Fourth Wall as he runs around invading people’s personal space, clambering over audience members and even throwing personal items away (one was a reviewer’s notepad – glad it wasn’t mine!). The whole theater becomes the stage and audience members become potential playthings or participants in the madness that unfolds.
It’s not easy holding an audience’s attention for a whole hour particularly without using words but Phil Burgers does this effortlessly and masterfully. Stuart Bowden, the other performer on stage may only jump in intermittently and on cue but his natural aptitude with the humble ukulele provide the perfect soundtrack for this very bizarre anti-comedy.
Doctor Brown in befrdfgth is wonderfully weird, utterly unpredictable and absolutely hysterical! A dark yet whimsical world of “absurdist mime” that every avid theatre goer must experience.
When asking my flatmate along to see Dr Brown in Befrdfgth I felt a bit lost when it came to describing what it might be like: "I can't pronounce the name of it. Well, I don't think he talks... it does sound quite odd... you know, in a good way." While I apparently don't have a future in sales, she trusted me enough to come along.
This turned out to be a very good decision, in the foyer on the way out she turned to me and said, "I haven't laughed like that in so long! I feel so good! That was amazing." Which is pretty much the best thing you can turn and say to someone after an hour of comedy.
While feel I am no better equipped to describe just what happened in the hour we spent with Dr Brown, I can assure you he is nothing short of a comedic mastermind, and his show was the most original, creative and unpredictable I've seen.
Shortly after we took our seats, a sudden, somewhat awkward silence befell the audience. From the scatter of muffled giggles, we weren't the only ones who were struggling to contain ourselves. No one knew what to expect. It seemed Dr Brown had commanded our attention, or perhaps more so, our curiosity before even taking the stage. From the moment Dr Brown 'appeared', we knew we were in for something very different indeed.
We were in Dr Brown's world. The steep tier of seating was Dr Brown's ladder, his head scarf was anything he wanted it to be, and often it was members of the audience who were the stars of the show. While the audience members were never mocked, my goodness, there are some good sports out there. Let's just say 'personal' and 'space' don't seem to be words that fit together in Dr Brown's world. It was actually hard to believe just how hilarious some of the audience members were, but I feel it was again something to do with Dr Brown's talent.
I really don't want to spoil anything, as it's the unpredictability that makes for such a brilliant show, and each person seemed to see it a little differently anyway. Often one or two audience members wouldn't be able to contain themselves while the rest of us chuckled, but most of the show was spent with tears on our cheeks. The good kind, of course (although there was a rather touching moment where a cattle family were reunited...).
I highly recommend paying Dr Brown a visit over the next few nights, you really won't see another show like it.
To be honest I had no idea what to expect when I turned up to watch Doctor Brown in Befrdfgth. I chose to review this one merely because the limited write-up, that gave nothing away, insinuated that it would be a show like no other.
And that it definitely was. The slick act, that proves that a picture or a visual show paints a thousand words, starts off very modestly and quickly lulls the audience into a false sense of security. But don’t be fooled. Doctor Brown (American writer and comedy performer Philip Burgers) is insane at best, an absolute lunatic at worst – who holds nothing back.
His ability to push the boundaries, while getting the crowd to participate, is both refreshing and intriguing. In a world that is overloaded with political correctness, it is great to see someone who doesn’t let anything or anyone hold him back. Even I was the butt of one of his antics when he decided to hurl my review notepad across the room. Luckily for me it came back via the audience like a boomerang.
The words ‘audience participation’ generally strike fear into the hearts of all (apart from those lucky individuals with no shame) but the difference tonight was that we were all manipulated into being willing participants in a master class of mime, acting, involvement, inclusiveness, silliness, cleverness and downright skill and talent.
Doctor Brown takes us through a number of repeating but ever expanding scenarios rather like starting the “there was a spider that swallowed a fly” rhyme, linking scenes in an intelligent and unexpected manner. There was an abundance of theatre-craft on display tonight. The apt music from the deadpan musician on-stage, ingenious lighting, curtains, set and the auditorium itself all complement the show and enhance its themes.
In a way I was almost a bit disappointed when the mime finally spoke but this was short-lived as it was yet another device to encourage the audience to get with, in, behind and ultimately in bed with Doctor Brown. While his attire was reminiscent of a peasant in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, he truly terrorised the audience and ultimately drove a majority of the crowd to hysteria.
So I suppose it’s no surprise that this show has recently won a string of awards including the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award 2012, Best Show Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award 2012, Melbourne International Comedy Festival Barry Award 2012, Total Theatre Award 2012 and the Breakthrough Act 2013 Chortle Award.
On the surface the show is simplistic in nature. However to be able to command the entire room’s attention for a full 60 minutes, particularly living in an age with limited attention spans, is truly commendable. But to do it without any audible words is even more impressive.
The post-show discussion was intense with a large slice of happiness and joy on the audience’s faces as they drank the free booze and ate the yummy tucker laid out for the opening night crowd.
If you only get a chance to see only one show at the festival, I recommend Doctor Brown in Befrdfgth. It will “make you laugh silly” in keeping with the NZ International Comedy Festival’s tagline – something we could always do with a little more of.
Stephen Austin - theatreview.org.nz'...the funniest, most brilliant show in this year's New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Possibly ANY New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Hell, I'd go so far as to say this is the wildest, most ridiculously surreal show you will see anywhere.'open/close
In this cynical world, it's a pretty rare occasion to be amongst an audience still willing to entertain their sense of play as they leave the theatre. Doctor Brown (Phillip Burgers) has us all roaring, cackling and honking out into the street, with broad grins across our faces and a more engaged sense of even the smallest gesture of those around us.
Such an unpronounceable title as “befrdfgth” (I had to consult my notes several times on that spelling) is always going to lead to something truly absurdist, but the levels the comedy is played at are something the publicity material can barely hint at.
It all starts simply enough. A black robed ukelele player sits, quietly watching us come in and seat ourselves, and we puzzle over what the black space might have in store for us. Soon, odd movements begin to stir behind the curtains and we're feeling a little uncomfortable that something may have gone wrong.
However, it becomes clear pretty quickly that what we are in fact witnessing is some insanely genius mime where we never actually see the performer as a character begins to form itself from the stygian gloom, snatching bags and creating ring-wraith shapes, searching for our pity and laughter. Mumenshantz* would have been proud of much of the object manipulation here!
When the performer does show his face, he is at first shy but has an oddly glib physical presence that is at once charmingly naughty and devilishly playful. He is willing at the drop of a hat to flip characters, clamber through the audience, create broad physical moments and bring us right down into the intimacies of a singular idea.
Instead of the usual un-interrupted process of flitting between each character that is so common (and almost passe these days) in most solo work, Brown uses the seconds in between to animate the thoughts going through his own mind, throwing half annoyed looks at hecklers and genuinely enjoying his own energy within the work, to the glee of all watching.
Not a single word is uttered in the entire hour, nor does it need to be. Every single moment, movement, idea and nuance is absolutely 100% clear.
The themes of the piece aren't apparent at first, but there is a cyclic nature to it all. It's clear there's a strong non-conformist, nonsensical air to proceedings, but there are also ideas explored of paternity, honour, guilt, suspicion and pride. There is doubt thrown the way of organised religion and a highly anti-authoritarian bent thrown in the mix as well.
It all really starts to come together when audience members are directly involved (indeed, we're all implicated at times) and it becomes apparent that there is slightly more at stake here than just a crazy performer trying to make us laugh, although if you anyone wants to watch this at face value I'm sure they will still be swept up in its infectious silliness.
It is easy to see that Brown's work/play style would translate well to a children's audience for his daytime show Dr Brown, Brown, Brown, Brown, Brown And His Singing Tiger (just with less sexual overtones).
So hard to explain in one easy byte what it is that makes this show tick, you really just need to see it and get immersed in the bizarre anarchy of it all.
However, without a doubt in my mind, I declare “befrdfgth” (yep, I still have to consult the festival notes on my spelling!) the funniest, most brilliant show in this year's New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Possibly ANY New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Hell, I'd go so far as to say this is the wildest, most ridiculously surreal show you will see anywhere. Do not miss.
Clowns. We grow out of them at about age 7, right? We’re talking proper clowns here: the kind that simply prat around on stage, silently, doing daft and crass things for our amusement. All very well when you’re a child and just watching an adult falling over is the most hilarious thing imaginable. When we grow up, we need something more sophisticated to tickle our funny bones, be it the astute, homely observations of Michael McIntyre, the PC-skirting bile of Frankie Boyle, or the self-reflective, postmodern comic acrobatics of Stewart Lee.
Well, perhaps. But Doctor Brown is a clown, and he’s put together perhaps the best comedy show on the Fringe this year: the most purely, convulsively funny live experience that this reviewer has ever had.
The creation of American mime artist Phil Burgers, Doctor Brown is gaining increasing cult status on the international circuit. His previous outings at the Fringe have all been minimalist, using the simplest of props: a swivel chair, a fan, a waitress’ apron. This set is even more stripped down, as Burgers appears on a blank stage dressed only in a black, Oriental-looking robe with coloured hemming, bushy beard bristling, eyes ever so slightly wild. He does in fact use props ‘borrowed’ from the audience at certain points in the show, but the humour is as much in how he attains them as in how he uses them.
The body of the show consists of a series of short mimes, some of which build into a simple through-narrative, some of which are left to stand alone. At first it seems that even Burgers doesn’t quite know what he is going to do: between each short segment he stands astride, black-gloved hands raised, swaying slightly, a quizzical expression on his face. Then he will dive into a roleplay of, say, a couple playing tennis, or a swimmer being chased by a shark. Through other, more involved mimes, we gradually gain a sense of a story involving bullfighting, intense sexual intercourse, paternal irresponsibility and finally, love.
Burgers does an extraordinary job of building comic tension through unpredictability. It feels like almost anything could happen in this gig; certainly, he pushes the performer-spectator relationship much further than most other comics would dare. If you’re really not into the idea of being touched by a clown, you’d probably be best advised to stay away.
But beneath the apparent physical and sexual threat, there’s a surprisingly innocent and joyous show here. Evidently in full control of his craft, Burgers judges the audience carefully, and only goes just far enough to make us squirm with sympathy for each ‘volunteer’ squirm, without ever really humiliating them. One particularly enthusiastic man from the front row is chosen for extensive involvement in the final act, and the show becomes a jubilant celebration of the possibilities of live theatre and audience participation.
Forget red noses and tiny cars: Burgers has reinvented clowning for a modern, twenty-first century audience and this year sees him at the absolute top of his game.
There’s no cure like comedy, and there’s no prescription like Befrdfgth. One of two shows presented by hilarious comedian and adept mime, Doctor Brown.
Showing at the Herald theatre across four nights as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival, this is a performance not to be missed. If you’re looking for something dark, different and absolutely gut wrenchingly funny this is the show for you.
His costume, which could well have been dug up from the bottom of a beloved dress-ups box, is subtle – part magician, part nobody.
Doctor Brown harnesses your imagination as he wields suspense and generates invisible stories through cliché mannerisms.
Like the best of mimes not only does he enable us to see the invisible, Doctor Brown transforms his tales, bending the rules of the stories he brings to life.
This twisting of expectations coupled with good hearted, yet R rated sequences. Violence and sexual themes are the Doctors recipe and it is one of absolute success.
Doctor Brown is an old hand at bringing his audience to life, and continuously coaxes punters from their seats through cheeky and childlike acts. More than a show, it’s a platform for play.
This mime knows how to be playful. Doctor Brown honed his skills at the French clown school Ecole Philippe Gaulier, where Sacha Baron Cohen among others mastered their clownish craft.
Doctor Brown in Befrdfgth is simple, incredible and destructively funny. While this show is definitely adult, it’s also incredibly appealing to ones inner child.