‘2 Clocks’ disassembles toxic masculinity with humor

The new play at the Wilma Theater is enlightening, enraging, and uncomfortable. That’s the point.

Theater artists (from left) Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman perform in ''Those with Two Clocks'' at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Theater artists (from left) Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman perform in ''Those with Two Clocks'' at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jess Conda, one-third of the theater ensemble Tall Order, said they did not write most of the one-liners that appear in “Those With 2 Clocks,” the new comedy that skewers patriarchal humor.

Instead, they found them on the internet.

“It makes me think about locker room talk,” said Conda. “It makes me think about who’s the butt of the joke and just how fed up we feel in the company of the joke of patriarchy. So part of this is literally naming things, putting these actual jokes in the space, and being, like, ‘What’s so funny?’”

Jokes about bullying, jokes about violence against women, and jokes that confirm the superiority of the joke-teller may not seem funny to many people who see “Those With 2 Clocks” at the Wilma, opening this weekend.

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Theater artists (from left) Jenn Kidwell, Jess Conda, and Mel Krodman exchange bawdy jokes as three old fishermen in a sketch from ”Those with Two Clocks” at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

But Tall Order, which is Conda (Bearded Ladies’ Late Night Snacks), Jenn Kidwell (Underground Railroad Game), and Mel Krodman (Sincerity Project), delivers those off-color jokes with clownish expertise, theatrical acumen, and gleeful whimsy – they seem to be having such a good time on stage – there must be something funny going on.

“We’re taking these patriarchal modalities of humor and we’re warping them. We are tweaking them. We’re queering them,” said Krodman. “I like to call it nipple twisting, because it’s a sensation that is provoked and for some is pleasurable and for some is painful. For some it’s somewhere in between – it’s a mix and your body gets confused.”

Theater artists (from left) Jenn Kidwell, Jess Conda, and Mel Krodman perform in ”Those with Two Clocks” at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

An early version of “Those With Two Clocks” was presented by Pig Iron Theater in 2019 under the name “Hard Times” as part of the High Pressure Fire Service festival at Fringe Arts. It is a series of short bits including sketch comedy, cabaret, drag, and burlesque, using humor in ways that may enlighten, and may cause discomfort.

Audience members can buy tickets for a limited number of seats on stage at cabaret-style tables. During the show, the performers randomly choose some of those audience members for particular sketches, for example, in an interrogation scene wherein Kidwell plays a bullying cop who accuses, verbally abuses, and crassly flirts with the selected audience member for several minutes.

Audience members seated on the stage are expected to participate in ”Those with Two Clocks.” Performer Jess Conda (left) explores boundaries with a stand-in during rehearsal at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Is it funny? Yes. Is it uncomfortable, particularly for the audience member? Also true. It furthers the play’s agenda to identify masculine brutality, live in it, and laugh at it.

“Haven’t we had enough trauma theater?” asked Conda. “Yet we’re still living with this oppressive system. So can we stage a story that laughs at it? Because laughing and crying are so close, and: Haven’t we had enough trauma theater?”

Jenn Kidwell (left) and Jess Conda portray police officers in a sketch that is both threatening and funny during a rehearsal for ”Those with Two Clocks” at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Those With 2 Clocks” is being performed with the participation of community partners who share Tall Order’s goal of creating relationships outside of masculine dominance. One of those partners is the Masculinity Action Project, a program of the Lutheran Settlement House in Fishtown, which helps men and male-identifying people reconsider traditional masculine socialization, and move away from toxic or violent behaviors.

During the pandemic, Kidwell and Krodman joined one of Masculinity Action Project’s Zoom workshop sessions, Reclaiming Closeness, wherein participants shared with one another in a mutually supportive environment.

“We were looking at each other on the computer screens and our jaws dropped,” said Kidwell. “Oh my God, that space is so beautiful. I can’t believe such an exquisite space of healing and holding and showing up exists, and that we got to be there.”

Jenn Kidwell creates an uncomfortable wave of infectious laughter during a rehearsal of ”Those with Two Clocks” at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tall Order’s community partner liaison, Pat Adams, pulled the Masculinity Action Project into the play, along with other people like veterans, and birth and death doulas.

“What’s beautiful about the community partners is they are people whose jobs involve empathy,” said Adams. “To bring them into a project like this expands what this conversation must be. We have to find a way together to talk about all the stuff: the bad stuff, the trauma, the hope for healing.”

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Mel Krodman wears a phallic costume for a skit in ”Those with Two Clocks” at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Masculinity Action Project’s director is Toby Fraser, who was happy to be part of the theater project, even though he has no theater background, and is not sure how comedy theater can do the serious work of dismantling toxic masculinity.

“If my work in the Masculinity Action Project has taught me anything, it’s that I learn the most when I’m uncomfortable,” he said. “Saying yes to something that is not just outside of my physical comfort zone, but also gets me outside of that knowledge zone of being able to see linear steps from here to here to here, felt like such a rich invitation. I don’t think I could have said no and felt good about continuing in this work.”

One of the Masculinity Action Project facilitators, Dwight Dunston, said he is putting his faith in the play to transform what people think about when they think about masculinity.

“They were, like, ‘We’re asking you all as community members to do this with us, but we’re going to take that risk with you, and we’re asking the audience to do that, too,” he said. “I try to remember that we’re all taking this risk together as we move across the threshold.”

Jenn Kidwell (left) and Jess Conda rehearse a skit from ”Those with Two Clocks” at the Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Because “Those With 2 Clocks” contains nudity, improvised audience interaction, strong language, and mature themes, the Wilma Theater recommends it for audiences over 18. It opens Friday October 7 and runs until October 23.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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