You can’t teach an old hat new tricks. Or can you?
By Jordan Cohen
In the case of Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s vaudevillian clown show Old Hats, directed by Tina Landau and enjoying a remount at the Signature Theatre after a sold-out run last season, both performers prove that a couple of old clowns indeed have what it takes to keep up with the changing times. Irwin, who is as good at serious drama as he is at clowning, and Shiner, who has performed everywhere, from the streets of Europe to Cirque du Soleil, show off endless amounts of humor and pathos through their unmatched physical agility, rubber-faced expressiveness, and boundless creativity.
But the thing that’s new – the new trick, if you will – is the addition of computerized technology to some of the routines. At the top of the show, Shiner and Irwin, clad in slightly over-sized suits and top hats, run in fright from a giant Indiana Jones-style boulder, projected onto the back wall of the stage and headed their way. The enormous ball soon morphs into a wormhole and the two flail about wildly, as if being sucked through space. But when the picture suddenly goes blank because of technical difficulties, the point becomes clear: while the influence technology has on our lives – and performance – is unquestionable, a computer will never replace the kind of pure, magical entertainment these clowns offer. And thank goodness for that.
Although the routines incorporate a ton of classic comedic tropes, the performers bring an undeniable freshness and fierce intelligence to clowning, a form that Irwin and Shiner seem to have a monopoly on these days, at least in the theatre. But they bring a different kind of intelligence that we associate with most other actors and performers – a comic intelligence, for sure – but also the emotional intelligence required to show us something we know but often forget: comedy and tragedy are merely two sides of the same coin. And since they (mostly) stay silent throughout the show, they convey it all using only their faces and bodies.
This axiom is made most clear in a routine where Shiner plays a despondent hobo. Shiner sits on a park bench, picking through the trashcan beside him. He finds a rose that won’t stick up, a teddy bear that falls apart, a Jack-in-the-Box missing its Jack, and Shiner grows more and more miserable. But when he transforms a plastic tarp and a few other pieces of trash into a puppet – finally, a companion! – he regains hope. Of course, the puppet soon blows away and he is right back where he began.
Other stand out routines include a mock presidential debate that devolves into a Punch and Judy show, where Shiner and Irwin try to outdo each other with ridiculous accusations and grandstanding; a routine called “Mr. Business” which makes mystifying use of an iPad (Irwin, in a business suit, tussles with an image of himself on the screen); and a deliriously funny magic routine where Shiner plays a magician and Irwin plays the beautiful assistant (in drag). G.W. Mercier provides the sets and costumes, which are impeccably cheesy in the magic routine, and appropriately baggy for many of the rest. A litany of sound effects, calibrated to perfection by sound designer John Gromada and Foley artist Mike Dobson, punctuate each scene. Be warned: there is audience involvement, and it’s not always voluntary.
The routines are broken up with songs, joyfully performed by singer-songwriter-pianist-accordionist Shaina Taub and a band of four, situated in the front corner of the house. Taub, who wrote all of the music and lyrics and plays bit parts here and there, brings youthful aplomb and tuneful melodies to the evening. She even gets a big, high-kicking finish when she appears onstage at the end in a pink sequined vest and top hat, singing what feels like the show’s signature song, “Lighten Up.”
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the evening, for me, was observing a group of middle school students seated in the front rows when I attended. Throughout the evening, Irwin and Shiner capitalized on the close proximity of these responsive audience members by often incorporating them into their gags. The kids were clearly enchanted; and, given the laughter and roaring applause throughout, the adults were pretty smitten, too.
Photo: Kevin Berne
Signature Theatre Center 480 West 42nd Street Tickets: 212-244-7529