I remember the Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Three, four floors of Picasso. By the end of the first hour, I was engrossed; by the end of the second, I was glass-eyed. Too much. One painting began to seem like another.
A similar reaction settled over me while watching Marcel Marceau at the Belasco Theater. Certainly, Marceau as mime is on a level with Picasso as painter. Both draw portraits of striking originality, the only difference being that you walk past Picasso's while Marceau walks his past you.
But, again, too much. Toward the mime's second hour, the eye begins to dull. The portraits begin to take on a similarity, even when it is obvious that they differ. Moreover, not all of them are of equal eminence: in a museum, one could pass up the less absorbing; here, one must sit.
Some portraits are overdrawn. In his famous character as Bip, for example, Marceau dials a dating service. He smooths his hair, straightens a tie. The doorbell rings. He opens it with an expectant grin and wap! The visitor, from Bip's stupefied look, must be eight feet tall with a matching capacity for food and drink. An hors d'oeuvre is snatched from his hand, then a glass of wine, then the whole bottle. Not only Marceau's remarkably mobile face but his whole body collapses into anguished horror. Superb.
However, a second, this time beautiful, visitor arrives. Then another and another until Bip is helplessly aswirl in a party of bodies. The humor fades; the party has gone on too long.
But even the least of Marceau's postures are never less than good because the artist himself is often better than his material. Rarely will you see such a coordination of physical and mental processes coupled with genuine satiric humor. Often one finds himself mesmerized by the man while simultaneously rejecting his sketch. As the old song says, poetry in motion.
Marceau's best portraits project man's basic dilemmas. In "The Angel," he creates an impish seraph bored with heaven's perfection. The hell with the heavenly choir; he'll take an accordion in a small cafe, a little wine, a place where he can hang up his wings and swing. Yet, he can't escape Him upstairs, and he spends half of his earthly romp looking anxiously over his shoulder until the inevitable reckoning. An exemplary comic miniature of the eternal spirit-vs.-flesh predicament.
Perhaps Marceau should be savored in smaller portions than 13 segments over a course of two-plus hours. Then each of his creations would assume a more complete definition and not melt into a mass. Marceau, by the way, has a repertoire of 55 sketches from which he will draw his nightly program. He is assisted by Jonathan Lambert and Jean-Jerome Raclot, who both introduce the installments and appear as extra arms and legs when occasion demands.
Marcel Marceau has appeared in New York many times since his first American tour in 1956, but for some mysterious reason his artistry never seems to lose its powers of enchantment. Like birthday parties, vacations and the first birdsong of spring, his exquisite pantomime dramas have become human rituals whose affirmation of life only grows stronger with the repetition.
In Marcel Marceau on Broadway, which opened last night for a six-week run at the Belasco Theater, the great French mime draws on dozens of the miniature dramas he has created over his long career.
Some of these little gems have never been seen locally, but many others are the happily familiar celebrations of life that have become the master stylist's trademark.
Although programs change every night, a typical evening is sure to include one sweeping panorama like "The Public Gardens," in which Marceau creates a cheerful canvas of humanity with its face lifted up to the sun.
Alone on a dark stage, with nothing to work with but his own mobile clown's face and lithe body, the mime summons to life an entire park of people: saucy nursemaids and amorous lovers, balloon vendors and children licking ice cream cones, chattering gossips and one lone, silent statue everseeing the entire riotous gabble of humanity.
There's sure to be a classic metaphorical piece, too. Something of the brilliance like "The Maskmasker," which finds the mime at play, delighting himself by donning and discarding faces in rapid succession - until the terrifying moment when he realizes that he's a prisoner of his own cleverness.
Marceau plans his programs with such precision that it takes even the most alert audience a while to realize that his silent dramas slowly shade from light to dark as the evening progresses.
Often, the emotional progression occurs within a single piece. This happens in a lovely new piece called The Angel, in which an ethereal creature who descends here on a comic earthly adventure gradually becomes trapped by mortal temptations.
As is his custom, the mime always devotes the second half of his program to Bip, his immortal alter-ego in the striped shirt and beat-up opera hat with the red flower jauntily askew on the top. Marceau has brought over some delicious new escapades for this endearingly optimistic Everyman.
He takes a train ride, gets involved in a dating service, and becomes the star of a traveling circus, each adventure being fraught with wonderful comic complications.
But he does survive, our Bip, which is why we have loved him since he made his first appearance in 1947.
Some audiences will be privileged to see "Bip as a Soldier," which hasn't been performed in almost 20 years.
In this beautiful little drama, Bip becomes caught up in the machinery of war - and it isn't funny at all, but profoundly moving and meaningful.
Poor Bip, who has been dragged away from his contemplation of flowers and butterflies, can't seem to get this war thing straight.
He can't get into the step of the war march, can't figure out what his gun is for, can't even button up his uniform properly.
In its silent fashion, the piece speaks an eloquent message that will always be poignant and pertinent.
Resurrecting it today confirms Marceau's genius, not only as a pantomimist, but as an artist who understands the power of ritual on the world family.
It is edifying to see a consummate artist continue to grow. Such is the case with Marcel Marceau. Only weeks away from his 60th birthday, he is still expanding his talent, sending his alter ego, Bip, on different journeys and, as an actor-author, entering new arenas of comic absurdism. Opening last night at the Belasco Theater, in his first New York engagement in eight years, he begins with a program that includes five new sketches and only a few that could be considered Marceau classics.
As we have known for many years, he can do more with a crooked finger or a raised eyebrow than most actors can do with their entire bodies. What is a constant discovery is his emotional range. As he has said, he does not act out anecdotes but visualizes feelings. His is the art of the invisible. His new show, ''Marcel Marceau on Broadway,'' runs a Marceauvian gamut from hilarity to terror, and sometimes does so in an instant.
In one of his new pieces, entitled ''The Amusement Park,'' he strolls merrily through mime country, watching imaginary children loop the loop (his eyes swing like a hammock from side to side) and blowing up balloons until they burst. Then he enters a labyrinth that could be a fun house of mirrors. Hand to wall, he ambles jauntily through the maze until he finds himself in a cul-de-sac. He is trapped and, as we watch, the walls close in until he is boxed inside his own coffin. Supreme self-confidence is immediately replaced by helpless fright.
That juxtaposition is, of course, capsulized in his famous ''Maskmaker,'' one of several trademark pantomimes that he reprises. Chained to a gargoyle grin, he becomes a monstrous victim of his own virtuosity. When finally able to remove that mask, he is expressionless, a Marceau comment on the actor who lives only through his roles.
If such is the case, Marceau has more than 1,000 lives. His repertory extends from the intimately realistic (a losing dice player who realizes that, when he is carrying a gun, there is a radical alternative to suicide) to the phantasmagorical ''Pickpocket's Nightmare,'' in which the artist, joined by two unseen associates, is entwined in a sea of free-floating limbs.
What is often overlooked is his gift for black comedy, evidenced in a new pantomime in which he plays an angel who plummets directly from heaven to a honky-tonk saloon. Every time the earth angel tosses down a whisky or casts a lecherous eye, he receives a lightning message from heaven. Even a fallen angel cannot forget his past.
After intermission, Marceau returns as Bip, red flower in tall hat, ready to challenge a hostile world. First we visit our old friend, Bip the Lion Tamer, still trying to cajole a lazy lion not to crawl under a hoop but to jump through it. In other more personalized guises, Bip is besieged by matters far beyond his control.
Embarking on a train, he undergoes an incredibly bumpy ride that crashes his heavy suitcase into his lap, turns a private snack into a group picnic and finally lulls him to sleep on his neighbor's shoulder. Am amorous Bip enrolls in a dating service and is surrounded by an army of applicants -tall, short, fat, thin - all clamoring for a drink and treating the crestfallen suitor as if he were a waiter.
Occasionally there is a change of tone in a Marceau classic. For example, in Bip's ''David and Goliath,'' Goliath seems more macho than one remembers him - a muscle-flexing showoff who clearly deserves the slingshot. As a final bit of political commentary, he has chosen to bring back his Schweikian little-man soldier, marching him off to unknown battle.
Assisting the star are the equally wordless Jonathan Lambert and Jean-Jerome Raclot. In New York, Marceau has often been seen at City Center, but he benefits from the proximity of the smaller Broadway house. He is scheduled to be at the Belasco for six weeks, varying his program in the course of his engagement. In his exquisite art, he remains peerless.