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A CurtainUp Review

The Harlequin Studies

The Harlequin has lineage. . .heritage. . .feeling

Bill Irwin & Rocco Sisto
Bill Irwin & Rocco Sisto
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
From the moment he first pops out of the trunk that dominates much of The Harlequin Studies, Bill Irwin proves that whether he's clad in his trademark baggy pants or a Harlequin's diamond patterned costume, he still lives up to his reputation as this decade's king of clowns. The devilish grins and grimaces make it impossible for all but the most dour curmudgeons not to smile, chuckle and often laugh out loud. The body that wobbles like a not quite firm jello mold amazes. It looks deceptively awkward but has all the grace and agility of Fred Astaire without his tuxedo. This opening salvo of the Signature Theater Company's Bill Irwin season showcases him not only as a gem of a clown but as playwright and director.

As a playwright Irwin has created something of an illustrated lesson on the Harlequin tradition associated with the commedia dell'arte theater. This lesson is introduced in a preamble in which Irwin and musical director Doug Skinner share professorial duties -- Irwin popping in and out of the trunk mimicing such Harlequin imitators as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Skinner orchestrating the lesson on a toy piano. Once the introduction establishing the Harlequin's history as clown, acrobatic dancer and play character (most notably as a comical servant) ends, Skinner is led to a Yamaha grand in the curtained- off section where he spends the rest of the show with percussionist Sean McMorris and violin/viola player David Gold.

Irwin being above all a physical performer, is a more visual than verbal playwright. The segments that follow the preamble speak for themselves, so that the lessons or "studies" are more like a picture book than a text. The first segment titled "The Studies" consists of a series of short and hilarious sketches or harlequinades showing the Harlequin in a variety of roles. The second and somewhat too drawn-out segment, which entails a complete change of scenery, is a tongue in cheek, fully plotted commedia dell'arte drama entitled "Harlequin and His Master Wed." Naturally, given the length of this entire enterprise, this tale of a maiden about to be married off to an ugly old man whose servant, the Harlequin, also lusts after her (a draped hatrack deftly employed to express his yearning) progresses at break-neck speed though this doesn't prevent it from including some risqué double entendre business with a broom and sock.

Though Irwin in his many Harlequin guises is clearly the star, Irwin the director has smartly surrounded himself with half a dozen performers who are fully attuned to his inspired style of humor. Paxton Whitehead, Rocco Sisto and Marin Ireland ably segue between leading roles as master, villain and young damsel in the longer piece as well as bit parts during the shorter vignettes. Rocco Sisto has an especially hilarious turn in which, with the help of Catherine Zuber's witty half man, half curly-haired woman outfit, he changes sex simply by shifting from one side of the ever magical trunk. Whitehead, a gifted comedian, is the ideal lecherous old master. Steven T. Williams, John Oyzon and Andrew Pacho round out the splendid cast as three acrobatic dancers or "Dream Harlequins." Their energetic and graceful ballets do much to enhance the viewer's visual pleasure. Bravo also to Douglas Stein for his airy set design, James Vermeulen's lighting and all of Catherine Zuber costumes.

It's nice to know that we can look forward to two more Irwin offerings: a new version of his breakthrough 1982 piece, The Regard Evening and Mr. Fox: a Rumination, a play about America's first celebrity clown, George L. Fox. After trying his hand, and quite successfully so, in a straight acting role (as the troubled husband in Edward Albee's The Goat), it's good to have Irwin the clown back to make us all appreciate what great fun really great clowning can be.

Harlequin Studies
Writer, director and harlequin: Bill Irwin

Cast: Marin Ireland (girl, ensemble), Bill Irwin (harlequin), John Oyzon (Acrobat, ensemble), Andrew Pacho (Acrobat, ensemble), Rocco Sisto (The Captain), Doug Skinner (Composer, musical director, ensemble), Paxton Whitehead (Pantalone, ensemble), Steven T. Williams (Acrobat, ensemble)
Set Design: Douglas Stein
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Sound Design: Brett R. Jarvis
Acrobatics: Lorenzo Pisoni
Musicians: Doug Skinner, piano; David Gold, violin/viola; Sean McMorris, percussions
Running time: 75 minutes, without intermission
Signature Theatre, 555 W. 42ndSt (10th/ 1th Aves) 212 244-7529.
9/03/03 through 10/26/03--extended through 11/09; opening 9/21/03
Wed to Sat @8pm, Sat @ 3pm -- $55, patrons under 18 $35
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on September 20th matinee press performance

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