Because my early training was in fashion journalism, whenever I'm at a loss for what to say, I look at the clothes. As nearly as I can make out, "Fool Moon," a nearly wordless piece of theater devised by Bill Irwin and David Shiner, seems to be a Statement about Baggy Pants.
Mind you, I have no prejudices against baggy pants. Nor do I have any mindset against the drolleries of what used to be called The New Vaudeville. Older readers may remember a time (the late '80s, I believe) when there was much to-do over young acrobats, jugglers, mimes, etc., who were theoretically reviving lost arts.
I had nothing against the Old Vaudeville. One of my favorite TV programs as a child was Ed Wynn, and I even loved the moment on "The Milton Berle Show" when Arnold Stang ran in with a gigantic powder puff, hit Berle in the face with it and yelled, "MAKEUP!!!"
Tellingly, there is an oversized powder puff in "Fool Moon," but it is not wielded with the gusto or manic energy of Arnold Stang. It is used genteelly. This, to me, is what distinguishes the New Vaudeville from the Old.
For the Old Vaudeville had no pretensions. It was lusty, silly, rather anarchic in its overflow of energy, and it had no desire to do anything but make you laugh, better yet, guffaw. The New Vaudeville imagines it's Art.
Thus, Bill Irwin is a master of funny walks. He does a sequence where he plays both Harlequin and Pantalone, making a quick change of costumes behind a red curtain, but projecting the two enemies from Renaissance commedia dell'arte mainly by their walks - in one case a jaunty strut, in the other a constipated waddle.
One of Irwin's best shticks has always been hopping into a trunk and appearing to walk downward into it as if it contained a spiral staircase.
In "Fool Moon," he is joined by David Shiner, who is best known in New York for his appearances with the Cirque de Soleil (and who was also in "Lorenzo's Oil"). Shiner, who wears a Tyrolean hat reminiscent of Chico Marx, specializes in dealing with the audience, insulting audience members (wordlessly, of course), making them look silly and helping them make himself look silly. Much of what he does is what street entertainers did when the streets of New York were less hostile.
Irwin and Shiner are extremely engaging performers, and their bodies have the plasticity and seeming imperviousness of Silly Putty. But after a while, their antics appear a bit bloodless. Having seen Irwin do Beckett a few years ago, I can attest to the fact that he has a voice, a musical, resonant one at that. It may be time to incorporate sound into this silent comedy.
The sound portion of "Fool Moon" comes from the rambunctious musical interludes of the Red Clay Ramblers.
Which brings us back to baggy pants. In an era when a large part of the population devotes itself wholeheartedly to streamlining its bodies and wearing clothes that highlight the results, it takes a kind of zany courage to present yourself in hopelessly shapeless baggy pants. Irwin and Shiner obviously have zany courage in spades. I wish they'd take it further.
Two clowns for the price of one? Is this a bargain? Bargain or not, it's the big deal at the Richard Rodgers Theater, where last night two of our New-Age clowns and any-age lunatics, Bill Irwin and David Shiner, opened an evening of tomfoolery, slapstick and baggy-panted mayhem they madly call "Fool Moon."
Accompanied by that wonderfully raggle-taggle and country group the Red Clay Ramblers - who, it must be said, virtually steal the show every time they are permitted to ramble - Irwin and Shiner are offering two shades of clowning, darker and lighter, both of which share something, if such a term can be used of the silence of the mimes, in prolixity.
They go on and on, and on again. Rarely in the history of the American theater have so few people done so little for so long.
It is not that they are untalented - Irwin at his best is one of funniest men on the contemporary stage. But there is a certain paucity of raw material here, with the result that every sketch becomes over-elongated and over-inflated.
The two clowns play a kind good-cop (Irwin)/bad-cop (Shiner) routine with the audience. Shiner - who might be remembered from his appearances with Montreal's Cirque du Soleil - is exquisitely outrageous, insulting the audience with blithe aplomb, climbing over it, stealing coats and cameras with abandon, tossing it popcorn, bringing parts of it up on stage to perform.
He depends a lot on audience interaction - a modish thing these days even in life and politics - and his big set piece, seen earlier with that Montreal circus, is a film-directing sequence in which he stages a jealous triangle of wife, lover and husband using audience members all of varying degrees of ineptitude and exhibitionism.
It's okay - but it was better the first time around, and, in any case, the joke loses its steam after about the first 5 minutes. As for Shiner himself, he is a kind of Marcel Marceau with attitude rather than refinement - a Bip with a blip.
There will always be room for the "dark clown" in the theater's pantheon. Think of that wonderful evocation of the darkest clown of them all, that Jonathan Pryce treated us to some years back on Broadway in Trevor Griffiths' play "Comedians."
But Shiner, no Pryce and certainly no Grock, is simply smart, sharp and petulant, never touching anything deeper than surface slick.
Irwin is markedly the superior performer, and his Harlequin and Pantalone sketch, although also owing a great deal to Marceau - particularly the master's David and Goliath vignette - is both clever and funny. But even here the baggy pants have been made too long.
Yet Irwin does have a knockabout genius to him that goes straight back to the silent cinema, an uncanny ability to transmogrify his actual physical shape and, better than all, an uncoy sweetness about him that even at its worst is cozy.
As for the present evening, this is at its simplest and best when the clowns, in cone-headed hats and derelict suits, are doing eccentric dance routines to the ever lively music of those wonderful Red Clay Ramblers.
Incidentally if you go, go prepared to perform. Shiner may clamber over you or cast you, and if you are a child you are not even safe from Irwin. Go ahead. Who knows? You may be winning Brownie points for an Equity card.
To that short list of unbeatable combinations that includes bacon and eggs, bourbon and soda, and Laurel and Hardy, you can now add Shiner and Irwin.
"Fool Moon," the show that David Shiner and Bill Irwin have brought to the Richard Rodgers Theater, proves that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts even when the parts are as great as these two beloved clowns. Call the phenomenon comic combustion, or maybe fools' fission. Whatever the magic at play, "Fool Moon" is a meltdown for the audience, whose laughter pauses only long enough to permit the savoring of such emotions as wide-eyed wonder and sheer joy.
For those who have encountered Mr. Shiner at the Cirque du Soleil or Mr. Irwin in his shows "The Regard of Flight" and "Largely New York," much of the material in "Fool Moon" will be fondly familiar. Here again Mr. Shiner walks through, on and over the first few rows of spectators, demoniacally mussing hair, borrowing hats and picking pockets along his Hellzapoppin path. Mr. Irwin shows off such signature routines as those featuring a bottomless trunk, an antic Harlequin and the fierce pull of an imaginary offstage vacuum cleaner. But even the old tricks, all of them lovingly polished through time, are lifted higher by the alchemy of the new partnership.
The hard angles of Mr. Shiner, whose extraordinarily quick-witted humor is peppered with urban angst and aggression, adds the spice needed to balance Mr. Irwin, whose sweet comic personality is one of gentle, almost bland bemusement. Just as the dark and intense Mr. Shiner can look like the conniving Chico Marx in his fool's cap, so the blond and pacific Mr. Irwin looks like Harpo in his. They were born to finish each other's thoughts, in body language if not in words. (Neither speaks a line in "Fool Moon.") They were born to be in farcical conflict, as they are in a stunning Act I sketch in which Mr. Shiner, adopting the pose of a Chaplinesque, rose-bearing suitor, finds his date under siege from Mr. Irwin, as a swank nightclub captain with the nose of another Marx, Groucho. And they were born to be brothers, as they are by the final curtain, when a storybook crescent moon raises them and the audience to a starry heaven.
Both men are also master mimics, slapstick artists and elastic comic dancers, but the enchantment cast by "Full Moon" cannot be summed up by a list of its stars' skills, jokes and routines. The show has a pungent theatrical atmosphere that seems to embrace the old Broadway house in which it has landed. The gags of "Full Moon" fully exploit the velvet red-and-gold front curtain, the auditorium's antique boxes, the stage's trapdoors. The sly allusions to clown history, from commedia dell'arte to Bobby Clark and Buster Keaton and Jackie Gleason, are present in everything from the totemic costumes and props to the vintage burlesque of a demented soft-shoe performed in top hats and tails to "Tea for Two."
In his past shows, Mr. Irwin has made much of being a New Vaudevillian. Either he or his accomplices would use words to deconstruct the comedy as it was being performed, as if to put the humor in quotes. That post-modern self-consciousness has been dropped along with the verbiage in "Full Moon," and his clowning breathes freer for it. This show isn't New Vaudeville. It's vaudeville, pure and simple: unpretentiously lower-case, timeless and as exquisitely honed as vaudeville was purported to be in the day when it was a front-line American art.
The evening's retro mood is further enhanced by the Red Clay Ramblers, a musical group whose eclectic repertory is that of a fantasy roadhouse band from a vanished rural America. Bluegrass, New Orleans, classical, folk and gospel sounds emerge in nutty profusion from these talented instrumentalists and singers, whose music making is perfection but whose personalities are authentically idiosyncratic. The Red Clay Ramblers give "Full Moon" an at times almost subliminal soundtrack that wafts through the night like a mysterious distant station pulled in by a car radio.
Perhaps the stars' most crucial collaborators, however, are the several audience members whom Mr. Shiner, with the eye of a virtuoso director, recruits from the first few rows for the most extended routines of the show. Because the amateurs are used not simply as patsies but as major players, a wrong choice or two could severely dent the fun. The draftees I saw at a preview, some of them required to engage in sexual clinches with strangers and to execute elaborate mime or dance routines, were so good they almost could be ringers. But I doubt they are. Mr. Shiner's most famous Cirque du Soleil stunt, in which he directs three men and a woman in an elaborate mock silent-movie melodrama, seems to succeed brilliantly no matter who the players, largely because of his forceful improvisational leadership. It also packs more punch in the intimacy of a theater than it does under a vast circus tent, bringing the evening to a climax that leaves the convulsed audience rocking like passengers on a wave-tossed ocean liner.
By using a fresh supporting cast every night, Mr. Shiner and Mr. Irwin no doubt keep "Full Moon" fresh, too. With time, they'll probably take their partnership even further as they find more new routines they can perform together to go with the old favorites they do apart. Although the differences in their personalities make them an ideal team, they share that spontaneous inventiveness that makes the best clowns seem like uninhibited kids. Their beautiful show passes by as dreamily as childhood, ending much too soon, but not before it touches us somewhere hidden and deep.
"Fool Moon" falls into an odd category of uncategorizable shows; not a word is spoken during its two-hour duration, though music (from the stage) and laughter (from the audience) frequently fills the Richard Rodgers Theater. A Broadway unwilling to support such a delightful enterprise would be a mean place indeed.
This is essentially the same show that David Shiner, Bill Irwin and the Red Clay Ramblers performed last summer in Lincoln Center's Serious Fun! Festival. In fact, they were probably the only performers in the festival to utterly disregard the "serious" part of that title, for while Shiner and Irwin are unparalleled physical comedy deconstructivists (a.k.a. New Age clowns), their comedy is unabashedly sentimental. They are Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton for the Clinton era - elegantly funny in an inelegant sort of way and devoted to libido-driven (but G-rated) comedy.
Take, for example, the first act set-piece, in which Shiner cajoles a woman from the audience into coming onstage. She joins him in a drive to a restaurant, where their romantic interlude is turned upside down by Irwin's rug-topped, nose-in-the-stratosphere headwaiter. Lovestruck, Irwin concocts a diversion for Shiner and proceeds with his own seduction of the luckless volunteer.
Similarly, in the final big piece - a holdover from his Cirque du Soleil days - Shiner induces three men and a woman from the audience into performing a stock scene in a silent film: A man arrives to find his lover in the arms of another man, whom he shoots. When I saw the show last summer, I was certain the audience quartet were shills, so good were they at interpreting and executing Shiner's mimed instructions. But the four chosen for a critics' preview last week were not nearly as good - and still the scene was hilarious.
Rubber-limbed, plastic-faced and seemingly fearless, Shiner and Irwin take comic conventions we thought we knew (and mostly made efforts in avoidance of) and turn them inside out, making art that is sweetly comforting and at the same time challenging. My 4-year-old daughter enjoyed "Fool Moon" every bit as much as I did (even though the show would benefit from some pruning and could lose the intermission, as was the case at Lincoln Center.)
The Red Clay Ramblers, musical parodists of uncommon finesse, are integral to the whole business, playing embellishers, co-conspirators and foils to the silly silent business around them. They all deserve to flourish.