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Now on Stage: Un-Theater

Playhouses aren’t just for plays anymore. At least not if mime shows at two key Southland venues this summer are an indication.

Geoff Hoyle’s “Feast of Fools” closed recently at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Marcel Marceau opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday. In both cases, more such acts are likely to follow.

La Jolla Playhouse and the Geffen Playhouse are unusual among the nation’s regional theaters in their ongoing commitment to mime and the circus arts. Featuring clowns, jugglers, acrobats, puppeteers and others more often associated with cabaret or variety, the genre is characterized by a heavy reliance on physical skills. It’s sometimes referred to as “new vaudeville.”

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Since the mid-1980s, La Jolla Playhouse has programmed an array of new vaudeville artists--Hoyle, Bill Irwin, Avner the Eccentric, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Mump and Smoot, the Invisible Circus and others--both in their own works and, in some cases, as actors in plays. Before Marceau, the Geffen in Westwood presented “Do Jump!” “Ennio” and Mabou Mines’ “Peter and Wendy,” which will be seen at La Jolla in October.

“I know Marcel Marceau is probably more cabaret and vaudeville than he is theater, and I know that was stretching the definition to a degree,” says Gilbert Cates, Geffen Playhouse producing director. “As a condiment, it’s a wonderful thing for the theatrical meal. I love the fact that the theater can be a place of surprise, where the audience is never quite sure what they’re going to be seeing.”

The tone is light, but the appeal is profound. “We give the clown license to burrow into subjects we wouldn’t let the philosopher touch,” says La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff. “It’s a key to digging deep, getting at sensitive subjects. If you make someone laugh, you disarm them and take them places they may not otherwise be willing to go.

“I love that there’s Geoff doing a show where not a single word is said. It’s so profoundly different than some of the other stuff we do,” continues McAnuff, whose season includes the recent production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” and the upcoming “When Grace Comes In” by Heather McDonald, and “Wintertime” written by Charles Mee.

Marceau’s Geffen run is billed as “the most intimate setting of his illustrious career,” and while that claim is difficult to verify, it’s certainly true that the acclaimed mime usually performs in venues larger than the 498-seat Playhouse. His most recent appearance in L.A., for example, was in 1999 at the Hollywood Bowl. “I did two or three pantomimes,” he recalls by phone from his Paris home. “But it’s not the same as a one-man show.”

From the beginning of his career, Marceau, 79, has been drawn both to things American and to the legitimate stage. “I started mime as a child, imitating Charlie Chaplin,” he says. “I wanted to do theater.”

He began studies in 1944 under the tutelage of the famed mime Etienne Decroux at Charles Dullin’s School of Dramatic Art in Paris’ Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. Even in those days, the idea of mime in a theater was unusual. “After the war, at that time there was no theater mime in France, in the whole world,” Marceau says. “There was slapstick, comedy, musicals--all sorts of drama in the theater. Mime was not theatrical at the time.”

He first played the U.S. in 1955. “When I arrived in America for the first time, it was like something completely new,” he says. “Never have people seen a man on a stage making the invisible visible, creating characters, this art form. It was wonderfully accepted in the States.”

Marceau has come to the U.S. on tour almost every two years since the mid-'50s and made numerous appearances on U.S. television. “America is very important to me,” he says. “It became my second country almost. I touched today three generations. Very often young people come to the show and say, ‘That can’t be Marcel Marceau, it must be his son.’ ”

Yet he continues to create new material. His performances at the Geffen will mix standards from his repertoire with more recent creations. “I keep the classical numbers because there are always young people who have never seen me,” he explains. But, he adds, “there are at least five creations in the show that have never been seen in L.A.”

The Geffen run came about when Marceau’s management approached the theater about a year ago. Cates felt that presenting the mime would be in keeping with the Geffen’s artistic mission that, as he writes in the brochure for the upcoming seventh season, includes “presenting diverse plays, musicals, circus, classic theater and new plays.”

The one unusual element in that mission statement is, of course, “circus.” “Circus and circus artists in America have had a bad rap because we associate them with popcorn and elephants and that kind of thing,” Cates says. “We don’t realize that there’s artistry in the circus that, if it doesn’t predate it, is certainly close to the beginnings of theater. You take Marcel Marceau and mime--is that theater or is that circus? I think it’s all theater.”

Cates, whose extensive producing and directing credits include decades of television and film in addition to theater, has a professional association with the circus arts dating to the 1960s. “In my early days, I did a circus series on NBC called ‘International Showtime,’ ” he says. “I fell in love with European one-ring circus, and the people who performed in it are extraordinary. I made a film on it called ‘Rings Around the World.’ ”

So it seemed only natural, when Cates took over the Geffen--then known as the Westwood Playhouse--in 1993, that circus artists would be part of the picture. “How do you make the theater vital and reflective of the time we’re living in?” asks Cates, who founded and served as dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television from 1990 to 1998 and instigated the university’s purchase of the theater in ’93. “I don’t know that any one form does it--comedy, straight plays, musicals.

“At the end of the day, I think people do things for reasons they can’t even understand and then they develop good reasons for having done them,” Cates continues. “I just happen to like these things.”

La Jolla Playhouse, founded in 1947, was revived in 1983 under McAnuff’s direction. About that time, the American theater at large was just beginning to take an interest in artists such as Hoyle and Irwin, both veterans of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus.

This interest would blossom into the new vaudeville movement of the mid-to late ‘80s, which featured a number of performers, including Irwin, who had trained at Ringling Clown College, the boot camp for the three-ring circus bearing the same name. Irwin, Hoyle, Avner the Eccentric, the Flying Karamazov Brothers and others began creating their own extended shows, more akin to European than American clowning. Some of these artists also worked with smaller circuses, such as the Big Apple Circus, and at interdisciplinary performance venues such as New York’s Dance Theatre Workshop.

These new vaudevillians caught McAnuff’s attention. “I remember becoming conscious of it around the time I came to La Jolla,” says McAnuff, who served as artistic director of the San Diego venue from 1983 to 1994 and returned in late 2000. “It seemed to fit into the whole postmodern thing that was going on at the time.”

New York also came calling. Irwin appeared in a 1985 Broadway staging of Dario Fo’s “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” and subsequently with his own shows, “The Regard of Flight” and “The Courtroom.” By 1987, when the San Francisco New Vaudeville Festival was held on the campus of San Francisco State University, there seemed little denying that there was indeed a trend.

Yet, now that the new vaudeville is no longer as fashionable as it once was, it seems less likely that other regional theaters will add these artists to their rosters. “There’s a creeping conservatism in producing in not-for-profit and commercial theater,” McAnuff says. “People are less inclined to take chances than they were in the late ‘80s. These are harder times to do that now, with the soft economy. People are perhaps a little more cautious, and any work outside the genres people are comfortable with probably suffers.”

Unfortunately, artistic programming isn’t only a matter of taste. It’s also about dollars and cents. New vaudeville can be cheap, but it isn’t always.

In terms of the Geffen’s three regular season shows and the upcoming postseason Marceau engagement, it’s been a financially mixed bag. “ ‘Peter and Wendy’ was expensive, ‘Do Jump!’ was expensive, and Marcel Marceau is expensive only because he’s Marcel Marceau,” Cates says. “With the exception of ‘Ennio,’ these attractions are not the ones that cost us less. If you took an average cost of five plays in any given season, they were above average. ‘Peter and Wendy’ and ‘Ennio’ did well. ‘Do Jump!’ did not do well.”

The large cast of the aerial variety act “Do Jump!” and the puppets and puppeteers of “Peter and Wendy” are what made these attractions comparatively costly. But the solo clown-caricaturist Ennio Marchetto was much easier on the Geffen’s pocketbook.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you’ve got a solo, it’s going to be less expensive than ‘Tommy,’ ” says McAnuff, referring to one of the musicals he launched at La Jolla that went on to Broadway and great commercial success. “That definitely would be part of the thinking.”

Artistic directors are always on the lookout for shows that can be presented cheaply, balancing more costly entries in the season. “It becomes an instinct,” McAnuff says. “If something is exciting and smaller, immediately the antennae go up for anybody who produces theater. But I don’t set off to find smaller projects.”

Often with mime, new vaudeville or circus acts, theaters serve more as presenters than producers, which means a smaller investment of institutional resources. “I like to think of the playhouse as having the freedom to do both presenting and producing,” McAnuff says. “With most of these artists, one hopes you do a bit of both. But if you get to the point where you’re mainly presenting, you’ve got to look yourself in the eye.”

Most often, as with the recent Hoyle show, it’s somewhere between presenting and producing. “With Geoff in this show, some of the bits come from his classic bits, but it’s a new show in that it’s a new assemblage,” McAnuff says. “All of the effort that you put into a new show is required here.”

In the end, though, it’s not about the bottom line. The continued presence of circus arts at the Geffen Playhouse and La Jolla Playhouse boils down to the fact that Cates and McAnuff feel it belongs there. “It’s a substantial chunk of what we do, as well represented as any area of theater,” McAnuff says. “I can guarantee that we’ll continue to work in this area.”

“I’ve always had a personal interest in the circus,” adds Cates. “So I guess in that sense I’m guilty of this very special interest that I have. Theater is a celebration of life, and what is to be excluded from a celebration?”

Indeed. And what better welcome for an artist such as Marceau, with his lifelong belief in the rightful place of mime in theater? “I’m sure that mime today has become a very strong art form in America,” he says. “I’m happy to come back to L.A. I hope that being in L.A. again we open doors for the future.”

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Marcel Marceau at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 18. $45-$49. (310) 208-5454.

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Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.


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