Old Hats

*published on Mar 12 2013 on The EDGE

Bill Irwin, Nellie McKay and David Shiner

Bill Irwin, Nellie McKay and David Shiner  (Source:Joan Marcus)

Imagine all the laughter you have heard in your life and then play it back: titters, guffaws, giggles, bellows, erupting tee-hees, chortles, chuckles, snickers and snorts. Get ready, because you will hear all of it during the wondrous new work, “Old Hats.”

Bill Irwin is a treasure, he even possess a MacArthur genius grant to prove it. He is a genius at making us laugh. Irwin often partners with David Shiner in a sort of good clown, bad clown duo and this dynamic was in full evidence and directed with gusto by Tina Landau in their new production, their first collaboration since the acclaimed Broadway offering, “Fool Moon.”

Clowning has as many nuances as laughter. It can be dark and weird; hence so much fear of clowns, or it can reflect back our better, sillier, more absurd selves. For the most part we are privy to the lighter side of clowning in this full-length piece, which consists of a series of vignettes punctuated by an amazing little band led by the vibrant, uber-edgy Nellie McKay.

The show begins with a literal bang. Smoke, meteors and film engulf the two hapless clowns as they gambol across the stage in signature vaudeville suits and old, top hats. Even though both Irwin and Shiner are no longer young clowns, they are still spry and rubbery, all languid limbs providing the strength for juggling and miming. Shiner picks fights with a man in the audience, Irwin demurs, and they have a hat-flipping contest. All of it is hilarious, and yet words flatten the sensation of being in the presence of wild animals of comedy.

As the film screen engulfs both clowns, the band takes over providing an introduction to the next piece, a “Saturday Night Live” sort of mock political debate. As an example of songstress Nellie McKay’s edgy wit her song features a lyric about politicians singing, “Be nice and salute the flag or they will say you are a fag,” all sung in the sweetest voice with music whose melody is aptly reminiscent of vaudeville.

Politics segues to an Irwin solo called “Mr. Business” where a badly suited “Master of the Universe” fights with his cell phone and iPad. Each in turn tries to eat a part of him, photographs him and heckles him from the screen. The ubiquity of the experience is pitch perfect.

Following there was a long, bittersweet solo, called “Hobo,” by Shiner, whose Bavarian home base, may explain his connection to more traditional European clown traditions. Here Shiner embodies the classic sad sack sitting on a park bench rooting through the trash until he finds the fixings to create a mate from a booze bottle, broom handle and discarded cloth. He dances with his damsel until a strong wind carries, even her, off stage and we are all left with our existential solitude.

I applaud the wide variety of the show as it stretches to the humor of pathos, sidesplitting slapstick and political commentary. Directly following “Hobo,” (and there is no run order listed in the program, so I bet it may morph), McKay and her musical cohorts perform “Inner Peace,” an homage to those who, “care not a wit for those suffering in Ethiopia, all they want is inner peace.” It is performed at such a furious pace that all but a few choice phrases were lost, causing a reviewer to ask, when the musicians strolled at intermission, for the lyrics, which McKay attempted to sing in snatches between before moving to the next aisle.

More giant clown pants are featured, the costumes by G.W. Mercier as glorious, as Shiner and Irwin become old commuters waiting for a train and comparing the pills they consume and miming the results. Then Irwin is a crazed Italian waiter with bowls of recalcitrant pasta that spanned the edges of the stage, there is also a “Cowboy Cinema” where Shiner plucks audience members to populate a silent film to raucous results.

But the place where the aisles were littered with laughing bodies came with the skit called simply “Magic.” Shiner is an aging magician with a stringy ponytail wig and Irwin is his wifely assistant. Let me take a moment to praise the wigs and make-up, by Erin Kennedy-Lunsford, as Irwin and Shiner were eerily transformed. Irwin’s “lovely assistant” was part Cindy McCain, part Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and so wincingly perfect, casting gimlet eyes at any perceived rival for her unctuous man’s affections that between roars, one wonders at Irwin’s ability to see gestural nuance with such clarity.

Irwin and Shiner are truly a perfect pair and yet they were made even more beguiling, sharp, and touching by the addition of Nellie McKay’s sweet voice and astringent lyrics. As spring approaches and politics threaten to swamp our spirits, treat yourself to an evening of hilarity. We all deserve it.



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