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These Jokers Will Take a Fall for Some Laughs

April 21, 1989|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

In its six years of existence, Vaudeville Nouveau has been doing its level, and frequently off-level, best to raise the much-maligned art form of rubber-chicken juggling to new heights--12, 13 feet to be precise. Wacka wacka wacka.

There are wheelbarrows full of loopy humor in the threesome's retro-hip theatrical act. But there is an equal amount of mind-boggling, eye-popping, gravity-defying physical dexterity. The wildly kinetic show comes to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo tonight.

In a world of entertainment that largely has abandoned the pie-in-the-face as the preferred method of comeuppance, it may seem hard to figure the relevance of showmen whose humor depends on old-fashioned pratfalls, baggy pants, fast-paced repartee, stunningly hideous eye wear and plaids so loud that neighboring airports are liable to complain.

Actually, along with such theatrical-musical-comedy brethren as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Vaudeville Nouveau has revived the manic energy of old-time variety shows and combined it with a performance art-like sense of humor.

"In live theater, you can acknowledge the audience," Mark Sackett, 34, said by phone this week from his home in San Francisco. "You're right there with the audience and you can talk to them. And we do--we talk directly to the people and improvise parts of the show. When someone coughs or yells back at us, that's not bad at all. We have fun with it. . . .

"For us, that's the point of live theater--it's that real sense of walking on a tightrope, which I can say because I used to walk a tightrope." (Indeed, Sackett met his Vaudeville Nouveau partners Danny Mankin and Jeff Raz while all were working their respective ways through college as circus performers).

"Part of the reason the Marx Brothers (performed in front of live audiences before filming), and the reason their movies work, is that when you play to an audience, you find out one-on-one what works," Sackett continued.

"Normally when you are doing comedy on film, there's no feedback. You can work on a bit and work it out till you think it's perfect, but if it's not funny to the average viewer, it's not funny. The Marx Brothers did their material time after time after time until it was perfect, which is why they were exciting and as fresh as they were."

These comedic descendants of the Marx Brothers, the Mack Sennett stable of funnymen and, further back, Italy's commedia dell'arte, play an average of 250 dates a year at colleges, fairs, schools and senior centers.

The act can be as short as a 20-minute variety show stint, or a full-evening production such as "Aesthetic Peril," slated for Saddleback, and "Savage Chicken," to be revived this fall.

"We got the name of the current show from a critic in San Francisco who was writing about something else, and at the end of the review he said, 'Miss this at your own aesthetic peril.' We thought that was a riot, so we took it," Sackett said.

The group's shows evolve constantly, so this will be a slightly different version of "Aesthetic Peril" than the one Vaudeville Nouveau shared last year with a Leisure World audience that seemed alternately bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

"There are things in the show that go right over kids' heads. There are some things that go right over (adults') heads. There are even some things that go right over our heads," said Sackett, and he wasn't just referring to the steady stream of jugglers' clubs, rings, butchers' knives and the obligatory rubber chickens kept airborne.

Nevertheless, Vaudeville Nouveau has proven popular. Youngsters like the troupe even though it lacks the multimillion- dollar special effects and high-tech gadgetry that seem indispensable to most entertainment directed at children these days. Success with the small fry doesn't surprise Sackett: It was a theatrical production for children that convinced him that something like Vaudeville Nouveau would succeed.

"Right before we started Vaudeville Nouveau, Raz and I did a production of 'The Taming of the Shrew' in Oakland," he recalled. "It was a program of Shakespeare for inner-city kids. We had this assistant director who kept telling us that it wouldn't work, that the kids wouldn't understand.

"But after the performance, three kids about 8 years old walked up to me--I was playing Petruchio--and one of the kids looked at me and said, 'Are you and that lady (Katharina) really married or is it just pretend?'

"I explained that it was just part of the story, and then the kid asked, 'If you were just pretending to be married, did you marry her really for the money or did you really like her?' That choked me up because they got it. The physical action kept their interest, and helped the story make sense so it sunk in. At that point I knew the physical end of theater was on track, and shortly after that we decided to put Vaudeville Nouveau together.

"Those kids will go see theater again. They will go see at least one play later in their lives."

Vaudeville Nouveau performs at 8 tonight in Saddleback College's McKinney Theatre, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Tickets: $11, general; $9, seniors. Information: (714) 582-4656.

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