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|A CurtainUp Review
Mr. Fox: A Rumination
The Harlequin Studies, co-written with his long-time colleague Doug Skinner, was a play in the format of an illustrated lesson on the Harlequin tradition associated with the commedia dell'arte theater. As was to be expected given Irwin's best known clown persona, the focus was on the physical rather than the verbal. The middle of Irwin's trio of Signature offerings reprised the marvelous The Regard of Flight which twenty years ago initiated his reign as "King of Clowns."
Now, to cap things off, we have Irwin as a more serious, text oriented playwright, and while he is still the central performer, he has put the baton into the capable hands of the Signature's founder James Houghton. Like the two previous productions, Mr. Fox: A Rumination is smartly staged and features an excellent supporting cast.
The subject of Irwin's biographical play is George Washington Lafayette Fox (1825-1877), a legendary clown who started performing on New England stages as part of a sibling act known as "The Little Foxes." Fox made his New York stage debut at The National Theatre in the Bowery. The turning point in his career came with his Humpty Dumpty in white face, the first American pantomine in two acts. It was a role he played over 1,000 times and, like Irwin's Chaplinesque Harlequin, the one that became his trademark. His career and personal life were dogged by bad business decisionss and illness leading to dementia and death at age fifty-two (possibly caused by the chemicals in his makeup or an on-stage collision with another performer).
Understandably this is a character to whom Mr. Irwin relates strongly, and though his "rumination" embraces several thematic subtexts -- the sad clown aspects of Fox's history and the racial implications of putting on white and black face makeup illustrated through the relationship with his black valet and dresser (Marc Damon Johnson) -- you may be sure that the ninety minutes won't go by without some side-splitting Irwin-via-G.L. Fox clowning. Sure enough, the scenes recreating Fox's famous Humpty Dumpty pantomine and the "Three-Legged Dance" that marked the opening of Fox's Broadway Theatre don't disappoint. The latter, in which Fox's younger brother Charlie (Geoff Hoyle) played the three-legged dancing Pantaloon to Fox's Clown, is priceless and had this critic, who tends to be a silent laugher, laughing out loud along with everyone else.
Houghton has choreographed the shifts from the backstage to in front of the curtain scenes clearly and without missing a beat. Irwin's frame for the Fox story is a prologue and epilogue in which he and Marc Damon Johnson, as themselves, discuss the concept of the play as rumination. It works quite well and the author has effectively compressed the historical data. The downside is that in the end we have a more sharply defined, over-emphasized picture of the disastrous business side of this man's career than his personality; this despite Irwin's ever marvelous portrayal of Fox and the supporting players' deft handling of multiple roles such as his brother, duplicitous managers, stage hands and the dancer who became his second wife.
Irwin certainly seems the right person to tell his story and his Fox both enthralls and breaks your heart. Too often, however, the story telling falls victim to the overly ambitious melding of entertainment with show business biography and meditation on performance and race -- maybe because those two clown acts draw a richer portrait of memorable clowns like George L. Fox than any play or rumination could.
The creative team deserves much praise for the handsome look of the production: Christine Jones for her atmospheric onstage and back stage set, James Vermeulen for lighting it to reflect the changing moods and Elizabeth Caitlin Ward for costumes to suit each situation. Much of the overall enjoyment can be attributed to the musical selections which includes works by Rossini, Massenet, Schubert, Berlioz and more.
Mr. Fox may be the end of Bill Irwin's Signature season but it also marks the beginning of a new and worth watching phase in his life. For the Signature's ever-growing fans, it also means another playwright's showcase is on its way, this one to feature three plays by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF THE PREVIOUS BILL IRWIN SHOWS AT THE SIGNATURE
The Harlequin Studies
The Regard Evening
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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Go here for details and larger image.