Bill Irwin, from Sesame Street to Broadway

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Sept. 24, 2003 at 5:57 PM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- The Signature Theater Company has taken its dedication to season-long explorations of a single living playwright's body of work to the extreme this year by inviting clown and performance artist Bill Irwin to stage and star in three of his theatrical creations.

Irwin, probably best known as Mr. Noodle of TV's "Sesame Street," has been added to the list of America's most important playwrights honored by the Signature in past seasons, including Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, John Guare, Maria Irene Fornes, Horton Foote, and Lanford Wilson, with August Wilson and Paula Vogel set to be honored in future seasons.

James Houghton, the company's founding director, said he has always felt Irwin belonged in this exalted company.

"I want to stretch the boundaries of how we think of and define a playwright and what a playwright does," Houghton said in an interview. "Bill Irwin is a fierce creative force and an absolutely distinctive voice in the theater, and his work involves so much of a physical life."

Physicality in the sense of acting with the whole body is what the art of clowning is all about. Irwin is not only a master of the art, he has been declared a genius of clowning by being the only performer of his ilk to win one of the coveted MacArthur Fellowships, commonly called the "genius awards," along with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

He currently is appearing at the Signature Theater's Off-Broadway Peter Norton Space in a 75-minute show titled "The Harlequin Studies," which has its roots in Italian commedia dell'arte of the 15th century. He will continue the season with a new version of his "The Regard of Flight," first performed in 1982, opening in December, and "Mr. Fox: A Rumination," based on the life of George L. Fox, a pantomimist of the Civil War era, opening in March.

Irwin, a boyish 53, does not see himself as a mime, however, preferring to call himself an actor-clown and now actor-clown-playwright. He is no stranger to Broadway, having had a long run in "Fool Moon," a comic entertainment he devised with David Shiner a few seasons back, and he has taken straight acting roles in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Albee's "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?"

In "The Harlequin Studies," which will run through Oct. 26, Irwin plays with three other actors, three acrobats, and three musicians including pianist Doug Skinner, a long-time collaborator who composed music for the show and also takes an acting role.

The show opens with Irwin emerging from a trunk with a mortarboard on his head to engage Skinner in scholarly double talk about the Harlequin heritage that leads Irwin to imitate Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Soon the stage is alive with the antics of Irwin in a Harlequin-patterned clown costume and five other actors similarly dressed.

This segues the action into a short play in the commedia dell'arte tradition in which Irwin plays a mute, disobedient servant to an elderly master engaged to a pretty young girl passed off as an "heiress" by her greedy "father." The servant betrays his master by wooing the fiancée, practicing his lovemaking on a cloth-draped hat rack. A fanfare of comic riffs that includes Irwin's famous marionette routine ends the performance on a hilarious high.

The production shies away from allusions to contemporary events, although there is a skit about a Tax Cutter Harlequin that takes aim at George W. Bush.

Irwin is assisted by veteran comic actors Paxton Whitehead and Rocco Sisto, acrobats Steven T. Williams, John Oyzon, and Andrew Pacho, and actress Marin Ireland, who plays the "heiress" with winning pertness. Whitehead displays the wide range of his talents in various roles including that of an erudite cleric, a dwarf puppet, and Harlequin's master, and Sisto is equally resourceful, especially in playing both roles in a man-and-wife con team.

"The Harlequin Studies" is performed on Douglas Stein's simple sectional set separated by rough wood partitions, artfully lit by James Vermeulen, and the costumes designed by Catherine Zuber are traditional with as few ruffles as possible. Skinner's musical score mirrors the action on stage without establishing any compositional style other than to sound pleasing at all times.

Meanwhile, Irwin is committed to a cameo role in Jonathan Demme's upcoming remake of the film "The Manchurian Candidate," and will continue his appearances on "Sesame Street." The Signature Theater's Irwin season will continue through next May 24.

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