Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bill Irwin & David Shiner in "Old Hats"

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I must admit I feared a let-down might await me last night as I went to see the new Bill Irwin / David Shiner production, Old Hats. Too much talent! Expectations way too high!! Plus weren't these guys turning 63 and 60 this year?

Nellie McKay
Well, yes they are, not that you'd know it from Old Hats. This is an impressive production, full of new, richly textured material, and as physical as anything I've seen them do. They do get a few breathers while a band led by cabaret singer and comedienne Nellie McKay entertains us, but this may have as much to do with elaborate costume changes as it does with stamina.

Old Hats, as directed by Tina Landau, comes across as a loving tribute to vaudeville and in fact takes the form of a traditional variety show, though one with electronic title cards and state-of-the-art video effects. Most of the material is mostly new, but they are clowns, so of course lots of business from their past work surfaces throughout. And there are a couple of old favorites performed intact: Bill does his Italian waiter routine, juggling plates full of "spaghetti," that I first saw him do in the Pickle Family Circus in the 70s. David again directs his silent cowboy movie with a cast of audience volunteers, a feature of their Broadway show, Fool Moon. As for the new stuff, no duds, but these were the highlights for me:

• After an opening of our intrepid duo escaping from a cosmic wormhole (video projected onto the back wall) and the noisy entrance through the audience of the late-arriving band, Irwin and Shiner settle into a classic softshoe routine where they try to outdo each other with fancy footwork and hat tricks even fancier than in previous shows. They are both technically amazing, though no clown and few dancers can match Bill Irwin's fluidity of movement.
• "The Businessman," a solo piece by Bill brilliantly combining movement with technology, beginning with a battle between his iPhone and iPad and ending with his identity being swallowed whole by larger-than-life electronic media. Reminiscent of his work in Largely New York, though much more ambitious and fully realized.
• "The Encounter," in which two doddering old men get on each other's nerves while waiting for a train. Their oversized costumes give them room for all sorts of bodily metamorphoses. A sweet and touching piece that seamlessly blends physical comedy with rich character work.
• A magic act performed by a pair of third-rate artistes. Shiner's magician is a creepy delight, defined perfectly by his own idiosyncratic idea of flashy movement. Irwin is hysterical as his female assistant, ever jealous of the old guy's flirtations with the younger ladies in the first row. And, yes, they do some real magic, including sawing a woman from the audience in half. This kind of parody has been done before, but the interplay of these two characters was absolutely delicious.

A lot of NYC clowns were there last night, and as fate would have it, David Shiner picked our own Missus Clown, aka Kelly Anne Burns, to play the damsel in the Cowboy Movie. Of course she stole the show. (Click to enlarge.)

Kelly told me afterwards that when she was on stage, Shiner whispered to her to "ham it up because this guy  [meaning another volunteer] is a dud!" and when she got to the death scene "to go really long."

As far as I can tell, the show hasn't officially opened, but it has already sold out its regular run through the end of March. A week has been added in April, and rumor has it that a second week will be added, but those tickets are $75.

You can learn more about the show and buy (April) tickets here.

You can watch the PBS documentary, Bill Irwin, Clown Prince, right here.

Click here to watch Nellie McKay perform "Feminists Don't Have a Sense of Humor" around the corner from me at Cooper Union's Great Hall, back in 2008. She does this one in Old Hats, but "Sarah Palin" becomes "Michelle Bachman." Thanks to  Mary Dohnalek for the link!

Update: Click here for a NY Times preview article (not a review) of the production, in which I am reminded that they did an earlier version of "The Encounter" in Fool Moon.

Update: Click here for all the reviews, courtesy of


Chris said...

OK, I'm sold! Tickets booked! This UK clown is taking his first trip to NYC!

jt said...

Drop me an e-mail when you're headed over.

Adam G said...

Chris-- you should stay a while-- there's a lot going on in town right now. In my latest blog post, I enumerate just a few of your clown/circus choices: