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Take a cue from David Shiner, the impatient prankster who starts audiences howling before the Eisenhower Theater’s house lights have even dimmed for the opening act of Fool Moon, and don’t bother finishing this review before you take the plunge on tickets. Why let someone else get to the box office first? After a winter’s worth of cigar jokes, sex-crazed politicos, and judges who take their fashion cues from amateur Gilbert & Sullivan, you deserve some professional clowning for a change, and you might as well get to sit up close for it.
Sitting up close is what Shiner’s trying to do in that pre-curtain bit, as he scrambles frenetically over seats and patrons to take his place in an audience that’s come to see him. Most of the folks who populate Kennedy Center stages strain mightily to give the appearance of being larger than life. Not Shiner. He’s a groundling like the rest of us. And to prove it, he’ll reverse course when everyone’s finally settled and pull a few audience members up on stage to perform with him in a silent-movie sketch and several other routines, making them look pretty inspired when they do.
Shiner’s a former street performer and Cirque du Soleil alumnuswhich is how he comes by his enthusiasm for audience interaction. His co-star, the MacArthur-granted Bill Irwin, is a different sort of clown: one who honed his craft in theater and dance troupes and who occasionally offers his services to such directors as Joseph Chaikin and George Wolfe. Whereas Shiner’s brand of foolery is all about relationships and how things function, Irwin tends to play with form. Show him a curtain and a microphone, and in seconds he’ll have turned the stage into his own private thrill ride. Give him a costume trunk and he’ll discover a staircase inside it, and the things he can do with a vest would likely baffle Houdini.
There’s a bit of Buster Keaton in both men. In his films, Keaton saw the universe as neutralcapable of doing a man in, but also capable of doing him a favorand he tried when possible to cooperate with that neutrality. If a flash flood swirled into town and destroyed his house, he’d generally manage to hitch a ride on its roof to wherever he was going.
For Irwin and Shiner, there are similarly elemental forces at worka mysterious stage-right vacuum that will suck a man heel-first into the wings should he venture too close to the proscenium arch, winds of gale force that won’t muss a performer’s hair but will turn an open umbrella into the equivalent of a windjammer’s mainsail. These forces can be perilous, but, as each clown eventually proves, they can also be harnessedto remove a competitor from the stage, say, or help with a tricky costume change.
You may think you’ve seen some of this shtick beforeand in the sense that most of it is derived from comedic routines that were time-honored when Plautus used them to entertain the Romans, you probably have. But decades have passed since baggy-pantsed clowning was last executed in D.C. with nearly as much hilarity and grace as Shiner and Irwin bring to it.
The bagginess of those pants is important, incidentally. It allows the undetectable bending of knees and standing on tiptoe that make the two men appear as elastic as rubber bands. You’ll notice their malleability most when they pair up for a waiting-for-the-subway routine in which they shrink and inflate as if their respective heights were controlled by some balance-obsessed deity, but it’s there in every skit they perform. Also constant is a physical lightness that allows them to glide where others would walk and to float persuasively, whether seated on a sliver of a moon or carried aloft by the rhythms of the Red Clay Ramblers, the traditional string band that provides a soundtrack for their shenanigans. Offering rousing tunes between skits while the stars catch their breatha Southern-accented take on Pagliacci is especially nicethe Ramblers pretty much redeem themselves for their far less ingratiating appearance in last season’s dispiriting Kudzu. But then, with Irwin and Shiner on hand, even that leaden enterprise could probably have been levitated.
Call them what you willclowns, New Vaudevilleans, pantomimists, or the most inspired lunatics this side of burlesquethey’re uproarious. Fool Moon may not change your life, but it will make it immeasurably brighter for a couple of hours.CP