‘Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha’ Review: Julia Masli Is a Problem-Solving Clown

‘Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha’ Review: Julia Masli Is a Problem-Solving Clown

For a show that has its audience in stitches, “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” is not without solemnity. On a recent evening, its sole performer, Julia Masli, called a spectator “the symbol of evil.” Another was “a symbol of the futility of mankind.” No matter: The crowd was doubled over from beginning to end. Was it the Estonia-born Masli’s strongly accented English? Her tone, which ranged from deceptively blank to deceptively sweet?

To be fair, these remarks landed in the general context of Masli trying to help people. In her breakthrough show, a hit last year at Edinburgh Fringe and now running at SoHo Playhouse in Manhattan, she goes up to audience members and simply asks, “Problem?” Then she proceeds to offer a solution.

Early in the evening, someone just as simply answered, “Sleep.” So Masli took him onstage, gave him an eye mask and had him lie down on a chaise longue, where he stayed for the remainder of the show. Another man revealed dating frustrations: “Gay men are insufferable,” he said. Masli appeared confounded, or at least acted that way, and replied, “I don’t know what to say.” Twice she made us hug our neighbors.

Moving up and down a single aisle with a discernible deliberateness, Masli projected a persona that was halfway between curious child and ingenuous alien just landed on Earth — that she is among us but not like us is reinforced by her having a golden mannequin leg for a left arm, with a mic attached at the end. Her otherworldliness is underlined by the work of the sound designer Alessio Festuccia and the sound tech Jonny Woolley, which creates an eerie mood that can turn discordant unexpectedly, and peaks in a fantastic coup de remix that shouldn’t be spoiled.

Masli wants to be of assistance, but her facade of naïveté leaves plenty of room for impishness. She is clown, comedian and trickster, revealing people to themselves and others, but also making them do her bidding. That last feat is quite impressive: The theatergoers may think of themselves as game for anything, but a more cynical observer might also marvel at the degree of obedience, and muse, “So that’s how cults are born.”

That dark undercurrent permeates the show, which Masli directed with the performance artist Kim Noble. It’s often poignant, sometimes grim, with stories of loneliness and estrangement repeatedly coming up at the performance I attended — people are asked about their problems, after all, not about their hobbies or achievements.

This theme and Masli’s Expressionist stage presence make “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” feel like comedy filtered through a European tradition of absurdist clowning that is not often experienced stateside, save for productions of “Waiting for Godot,” for example, or the family-friendly and sneakily melancholy “Slava’s Snowshow.” Yet Masli only dips a toe in those murky existential depths, before retreating into audience-friendly whimsy. Of course, it’s hard to complain that a show is too nice, but in this case it’s equally hard to shake the nagging feeling that “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” could be so much more.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
Through June 8 at SoHo Playhouse, Manhattan; sohoplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes.

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