Amid the plush creature comforts of Segerstrom Hall, Costa Mesa, it's often difficult to keep things in perspective.
Mime maestro Marcel Marceau, who performed his one-man show there Monday night, is the quintessential modern European man in isolation, conjuring up his own world out of the ashes of the old one. His art is born of pain and great self-discipline (only the most rigorous performer could do what he does at age 63). His work looks at death as much as it looks at life.
In other words, he is much more than Red Skelton's TV partner, which is likely how most Americans approach Marceau these days. The very upscale Segerstrom audience, even if their memory of him did not transcend TV, listened and watched as a theater audience. Some of the pain, as well as the joy he transmitted, was received.
The listening aspect of a Marceau performance especially has a way of telescoping one's attention down to the essentials. "The Cage," a piece that has him trapped in an imploding cell, is all the more terrifying with the wave of silence that engulfs it. It is one of his "style pantomimes," the form he has developed over the years since his training with the great mime artists Etienne Decroux and Jean-Louis Barrault. Unlike his Bip, the universal Everyman whom we're treated to in the evening's second half, his style mimes often try to soar above the earthly plain.
These are ambitious works--"The Creation of the World," "The Angel," "The Public Garden." The first is his laconic view of Adam and Eve, while the second, Dante-esque in scope, follows a man in his encounters with the flesh and the spirit. They could be Bip's fantastic dreams; even the romance of "The Public Garden" is the daydream of a lonely soul. They are certainly the creations of a singly catholic mind (in his repertoire is a piece, not performed Monday, titled "The Seven Deadly Sins").
What Marceau has mastered, above all, is the comedy of predicament, the comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Bip is the star here: His dating service sends over too many women at once to his pad, his suicide attempts are foiled by hazard and too many badly tied rope knots, and the lion he's trying to tame is every bit the individual show-off he is. But Bip's witheringly funny life-threatening situations also apply to a warrior in a style mime, "The Samurai's Sword." When he wants to sheathe the sword, it won't go in; when he taunts an enemy and tries to pull the weapon out, it won't budge.
The program consists mainly of standards, like Bip playing David and Goliath or Bip going to war. Basic training is bad enough (this section is pure Chaplin); but life in the trenches becomes a meeting with death.
His soldier's story is literally that, with plot turns and an unexpected denouement (Marceau is ultimately life-affirming). It is amazing enough that Marceau, over the years, appears not to have lost any agility, suppleness or strength. But the fusion of a dancer's body with narrative sensibilities continues to make a Marceau performance one man's act of remaking the world in his own image.
Marceau's tour continues tonight at Bridges Auditorium, 4th Street and College Way, Claremont, 8 p.m. Tickets: $11.50-$17.50; (714) 621-8032. Also Saturday, 8 p.m. and Sunday, 2 and 8 p.m. at Ambassador Auditorium, 33 W. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets: $22-$25; (818) 304-6161 or (213) 681-0212.