Physical Comedy in the 21st Century — James Thiérrée in "Raoul"
As the lights went down at the end of the final performance of James Thiérrée's Raoul at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this afternoon, the entire audience immediately jumped to its feet to give him a rousing standing ovation. And yet the New York Times review argued that "the charms of Raoul the show quickly wear thin."
I'll tell you what we've got here. On the one hand there's the performer's skill and magnetism, the world he creates, its impact on the audience. On the other hand there's the MEANING of the piece, so dear to critics, the overarching themes that connect everything and hopefully add up to a whole greater than its parts. Call it plot, structure, choreography, playwrighting, whatever....
So let's start with the performer, James Thiérrée, in what is essentially a one-man show. Great-grandson of playwright Eugene O'Neill, grandson of Charlie Chaplin, son of Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and Victoria Chaplin (Cirque Imaginaire), kid brother of Aurélia Thiérrée (see my post #67) — well obviously he has a lot to live up to. Lucky for him, luckier for us, he manages quite nicely, thank you very much. Thus the standing ovation, which Jim Moore, Jan Greenfield, and I had no hesitation in joining.
Thiérrée's movement is a stunning, fluid, and seamless blend of mime, circus, physical comedy, and dance. His routines are inspired and at times so complexly layered that you can only compare him to physical comedians such as George Carl or Bill Irwin at their best, or to a comic like Reggie Watts at his wildest. There were many moments during the show when I felt as if I had been privileged to see Charlie Chaplin live. Yes, there is a family resemblance (he's not adopted!), and Thiérrée's physical virtuosity reminds one of why W.C. Fields paid Chaplin the supreme compliment of saying "He's a goddamn ballet dancer. I'd like to strangle him with my bare hands." If you're really interested in physical comedy, and not just reading this blog to impress me, do not miss a chance to see Thiérrée live.
But what is the show about and why was the Times so dismissive? Well, you can read the review here, but the argument in a nutshell is that the world Thiérrée creates ultimately doesn't add up to much of anything and doesn't go anywhere. This is not necessarily an unfair argument, though certainly harsh. There's no clear linear narrative, and the character is not anchored in naturalistic detail. We gather that this is a tale of a man whose home is gradually destroyed, but we know not why. We see his fight to survive and make sense of his existence, but again it is not always clear what's going on. In those moments when Thiérrée isn't wowing us, the piece tends to sag because we lack the conventional hooks of story and character.
What we get instead is more of a surrealistic dream world. Raoul is in essence an abstract piece, open to multiple interpretations, pretty much like 90% of the dance pieces I see these days... though somehow they don't meet with the same scorn from the press. Ditto opera, though I must admit I don't see much of that. The reality is that some shows are more performer-based and others more literary-based, and an ideal melding of the two usually proves pretty elusive. I think Bill Irwin pulled it off for most of Regard of Flight, but at least 95% of the time we have to accept an imperfect universe.
Note to publicist: Don't evoke Beckett in your press release. Too much to live up to; a strategy pretty much guaranteed to backfire with your more high-toned critics.
But here's another thing I like: our star's formidable talents, which the Times haughtily disparages as "Mr. Thiérrée’s shtick," are not merely technical. His interaction with the physical world has one foot in the inventions of Buster Keaton and the other firmly in a futuristic mindscape — thus my placing this show in my coveted category, Physical Comedy in the 21st Century — a designation reserved for performances that point the art form in new directions. It is Thiérrée’s genius to transform all of the physical world, everything on stage, curtains and all. As surely as Dali painting a landscape, Thiérrée’s body and imagination interact with a dynamic theatrical set that itself becomes another character in the show. What the hell am I talking about?? Hey, you gotta see the show, but take it from me that nothing on that stage is nailed down; nothing remains what it was. Dali, Bréton, Magritte, Miro and the gang would be proud.
Hey, I'd love to show you some representative video to back up my enthusiasms, but not doing too well there. I continue to be unimpressed (shocked, actually) as to how so many strong shows have such poor promo videos. And why is it that funny shows have to have these artsy, lyrical trailers that don't even hint at comedy? For example:
But like I said, try to see the show. Meanwhile, here are a few good links for you, courtesy of Jim Moore.
...that you can click on any blog image to see it full size?
[So this is what I wrote six years ago; more or less true!]
Ring around a rosie, a pocket full of posies Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down
Welcome to the All Fall Down blog, an exploration of all aspects of physical comedy, from the historical to the latest work in the field, from the one-man show to the digital composite, from the conceptual to the nuts & bolts how-to. Be prepared for a broad definition of physical comedy (mine!) and a wide variety of approaches. Physical comedy is a visual art form, so there’ll be tons of pictures and videos, but also some substantial writing and research, including scripts and probably even some books.
This blog is a result of me wanting to follow through on lots of unfinished research from the past 25 years. It’s made possible by a full-year sabbatical leave from Bloomfield College that will take me through August 2010. It’s also made more practical by the ease of Web 2.0 tools for managing and distributing content. I had envisioned a web site similar to this blog more than a decade ago, but never got too far with it because it was simply a lot more work. Now, no more excuses!
Just as this blog will be sharing lots of goodies with you free of charge, I hope you will share your knowledge and ideas with me. Feel free to comment on any of it, or to write me directly with your suggestions. Admittedly I don’t see this as a free-for-all forum on the subject of physical comedy. It’s my blog, I’m the filter, and it won’t be all things to all people. That being said, I hope it will bring together insights, information, and people, and encourage others to make their own singular contributions to the field.
I hope to be adding substantial and varied material to the blog on a regular basis, so check back often and be sure to check out previous posts. And finally, a thanks to all of you, past present, and future whose work contributes to our knowledge — and our fun. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.
— John Towsen New York CIty May, 2009
My Physical Comedy Qualifications
So if you don’t blink, you can see me doing a pratfall on the original 1957 CBS production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella(starring Julie Andrews, directed by Ralph Nelson, stage managed by Joseph Papp).
If that doesn't say it all, then click here for the full bio.
My Favorite Posts Okay, there are literally thousands of physical comedy blogs out there, but only one physical comedy blogopedia. Why list my favorite posts? Because I want to draw attention to my best research and writing, to posts that make the strongest connections between old and new, between theory and practice, between ha-ha funny and broader global issues. If I die tomorrow, which is impossible because it's already the day after tomorrow in Australia, these are the ones I would like read aloud at my funeral, with high-rez projection of all videos. (Is it bad luck to write that?) Also, please mention that I never voted for a Republican. —jt
Here are some useful and fun blogs and web sites that touch on the whole field of physical comedy, rather than just sites by performers about themselves (not that there's anything wrong with that). Click away!
For the latest posts from these blogs, see below. (Blogs only; not web sites.) These are automatically sequenced by Google in order of most current posts. The blog at the top of the list is the blog with the most recent post. Since the whole idea is to keep you (and me) up to date on current posts in the field, blogs that have not been posting regularly have been dropped from the list; if you've been dropped but are now posting regularly, just let me know.
Here's a list of complete books available for free as pdf documents right here on this here blogopedia, arranged in chronological order; dates are publication in the original language. Clickhere for a Tech Note on these books. Click on the book title to go to that post. More books coming!