Featuring: Bill Irwin and David Shiner
Original music written and performed by: Shaina Taub
Directed by: Tina Landau
When: September 10 through October 5, 2014. Extended through October 12, 2014
Where: American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, California
Tickets: $20-$120. Visit act-sf.org or call 415-749-2228
contemplates growing older
in a clown’s body
of a show to the West Coast
Those two words are all it takes to describe "Old Hats," a 2013 vaudevillian tour-de-force in its West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater through October 12, 2014.
Midway through the performance on September 17, during "Cowboy Cinema," the longest and most uproarious of nine skits, the sold-out theater shook from ricocheting volleys of uncontrollable laughter. We could feel the mirth down to our bones.
And like all true clown shows, the audience is very much part of the experience from the balcony member who either caught or was struck by a flying dinner plate during "The Waiter," to the front-row attendees sloppily tongue-kissed, then tackled to the floor in rolling bear hugs by David Shiner, portraying a slimy, washed-up magician in "The Magic Act."
In fact, it was an audience member "upstaging" Shiner and Bill Irwin that drew the biggest laughs of the evening. (I use quote marks as a tip of the hat to the genius comic duo for making it appear spontaneous when, during "Cowboy Cinema," the theatergoer portraying The Good Guy literally blows the lid off the sketch and, figuratively, the theater.)
It is a gift to witness Shiner and Irwin on stage together, in what is essentially a sequel to their 1993 theatrical piece, "Fool Moon," which nabbed Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. That piece also featured a band and, aside from an awkward opening-night, no dialogue.
In "Old Hats," however, which received a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revue in 2013 during an Off-Broadway stint, the band is part of the performance, a technique that gives the spectacle the feel of a variety show.
Which leads to my one and only complaint a minor grievance that could just as easily be a failing of my own as of the production: Shaina Taub, essentially the third player in "Old Hats," is a powerhouse of a singer and a commanding presence on stage, but the constant veering from pure physical comedy to lyrically heavy 3- to 4-minute songs during the first act gave me transition whiplash.
But when we see Irwin decked out as an aging floozy the better half of, as Shiner describes them, "a couple of real losers from Reno" in "The Magic Act," after one of these story-songs, you know it was worth the wait. As to why the duo, along with director Tina Landau (who also directed last year’s run), came up with the idea for the interludes: It was to give Irwin, 64, and Shiner, 61, time to rest between sketches. And, anyway, after the intermission, my gripe fizzled, partly because Taub took a more active role in the skits, and the songs blended in with the action.
"Old Hats" is, pun intended, a rumination on mortality, not in the way that Irwin’s former Pickle Family Circus partner Geoff Hoyle’s "Geezer" looked at growing old, but in the "What can we still get away with on stage?" vein. It’s also about morality, although the lighter variety, which basically amounts to the message of "Lighten Up," Taub and band’s closing number about not taking life too seriously. (It’s the same message that everyone of a certain age ought to remember from Bobby McFerrin’s "Don’t Worry Be Happy," the 1988 music video of which starred Irwin, alongside McFerrin and Robin Williams.)
When Shiner and Irwin decided to work on a follow-up to "Fool Moon" in 2012, they said their greatest fear was given their physical limitations 20 years later that they wouldn’t have it in them to pull another clown show out of their hats.
What they came up with is sort of a crossroads between traditional clowning and Cirque du Soleil, with which Shiner has toured and Irwin, arguably, helped inspire.
Which is to say, this is not Cirque due Soleil, but some of the skits would fit right in at a Cirque show. That’s no small credit to Landau, who last directed William Saroyan’s "The Time of Your Life" at A.C.T. in 2004 and whose direction puts a fresh polish on the stage antics and keeps the show moving at a brisk pace.
The pair poke fun at their older selves in "The Encounter," a revised version of the same two-guys-waiting-on-a-train bit they performed in "Fool Moon," which itself is a variation on Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot," an adaptation of which Irwin performed with Williams and Steve Martin in 1988.
Wearing suits that seem to be made of inflatable rubber, the train-waiters, rather than getting into a brawl this time, are cranky old men sharing their ailments and medication with each other, to hilarious effect.
And in the technically dazzling "Mr. Business," the businessman has gone from getting zapped into a television to having a tiny doppelganger who gets locked into a tablet computer, the whole thing an homage to "Mr. Sherlock," in which Buster Keaton becomes stuck in a film within a film. The skit also touches on Irwin’s disconnect with modern technology. In press materials, he states that he doesn’t even own a smartphone.
"Old Hats" is that rare bit of theater we could attend over and over and never get bored with, partly because the audience would be different each night. But, honestly, I would probably be glued to my seat watching Irwin and Shiner give a lecture.
Which they sort of do in the opening skit, "The Debate," a send-up of political stumping in which the two duke it out at podiums, employing smear tactics that backfire deliciously and involve cross dressing and baby throwing.
As the final act, it’s fitting that Irwin and Shiner toss their top hats to the stage floor as the spotlight closes in. Hopefully, it’s just a clever way to close out the show and doesn’t carry any deeper symbolism. But after the minutes-long standing ovation that followed, as well as a the demand for an extension before "Old Hats" even opened, it’s hard to believe the pair won’t be back under the hot lights again in the near future, with new bags of tricks in tow. Even if it’s just involves them seated at a table.
Email Kevin Kelly at email@example.com
Copyright 2014 Kevin Kelly
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