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Now on Stage: Un-Theater

Two regional playhouses are moving beyond traditional works to present mime and circus acts

July 28, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER

Playhouses aren't just for plays anymore. At least not if mime shows at two key Southland venues this summer are an indication.

Geoff Hoyle's "Feast of Fools" closed recently at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Marcel Marceau opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday. In both cases, more such acts are likely to follow.

La Jolla Playhouse and the Geffen Playhouse are unusual among the nation's regional theaters in their ongoing commitment to mime and the circus arts. Featuring clowns, jugglers, acrobats, puppeteers and others more often associated with cabaret or variety, the genre is characterized by a heavy reliance on physical skills. It's sometimes referred to as "new vaudeville."

Since the mid-1980s, La Jolla Playhouse has programmed an array of new vaudeville artists--Hoyle, Bill Irwin, Avner the Eccentric, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Mump and Smoot, the Invisible Circus and others--both in their own works and, in some cases, as actors in plays. Before Marceau, the Geffen in Westwood presented "Do Jump!" "Ennio" and Mabou Mines' "Peter and Wendy," which will be seen at La Jolla in October.

"I know Marcel Marceau is probably more cabaret and vaudeville than he is theater, and I know that was stretching the definition to a degree," says Gilbert Cates, Geffen Playhouse producing director. "As a condiment, it's a wonderful thing for the theatrical meal. I love the fact that the theater can be a place of surprise, where the audience is never quite sure what they're going to be seeing."

The tone is light, but the appeal is profound. "We give the clown license to burrow into subjects we wouldn't let the philosopher touch," says La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff. "It's a key to digging deep, getting at sensitive subjects. If you make someone laugh, you disarm them and take them places they may not otherwise be willing to go.

"I love that there's Geoff doing a show where not a single word is said. It's so profoundly different than some of the other stuff we do," continues McAnuff, whose season includes the recent production of Moliere's "Tartuffe" and the upcoming "When Grace Comes In" by Heather McDonald, and "Wintertime" written by Charles Mee.

Marceau's Geffen run is billed as "the most intimate setting of his illustrious career," and while that claim is difficult to verify, it's certainly true that the acclaimed mime usually performs in venues larger than the 498-seat Playhouse. His most recent appearance in L.A., for example, was in 1999 at the Hollywood Bowl. "I did two or three pantomimes," he recalls by phone from his Paris home. "But it's not the same as a one-man show."

From the beginning of his career, Marceau, 79, has been drawn both to things American and to the legitimate stage. "I started mime as a child, imitating Charlie Chaplin," he says. "I wanted to do theater."

He began studies in 1944 under the tutelage of the famed mime Etienne Decroux at Charles Dullin's School of Dramatic Art in Paris' Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. Even in those days, the idea of mime in a theater was unusual. "After the war, at that time there was no theater mime in France, in the whole world," Marceau says. "There was slapstick, comedy, musicals--all sorts of drama in the theater. Mime was not theatrical at the time."

He first played the U.S. in 1955. "When I arrived in America for the first time, it was like something completely new," he says. "Never have people seen a man on a stage making the invisible visible, creating characters, this art form. It was wonderfully accepted in the States."

Marceau has come to the U.S. on tour almost every two years since the mid-'50s and made numerous appearances on U.S. television. "America is very important to me," he says. "It became my second country almost. I touched today three generations. Very often young people come to the show and say, 'That can't be Marcel Marceau, it must be his son.' "

Yet he continues to create new material. His performances at the Geffen will mix standards from his repertoire with more recent creations. "I keep the classical numbers because there are always young people who have never seen me," he explains. But, he adds, "there are at least five creations in the show that have never been seen in L.A."

The Geffen run came about when Marceau's management approached the theater about a year ago. Cates felt that presenting the mime would be in keeping with the Geffen's artistic mission that, as he writes in the brochure for the upcoming seventh season, includes "presenting diverse plays, musicals, circus, classic theater and new plays."

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