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The First 100 Years
With a nod to the French novelist, clown/comic actor
Geoff Hoyle has written a "remembrance of things Proust" - Jack Proust,
that is ("little or no relation to Marcel"), an aging comedian living
in an abandoned theater. Essentially a solo performance, this is no vanity showcase, but a brilliantly
conceived framework within which Hoyle explores the history of comedy. The fictional
biography cum history format transcends mere documentation and allows Hoyle to comment on
the relationship of man to the world around him, which is, of course, the traditional
function of the clown.
From the very start, with Hoyle doing setting-up
exercises to the samba beat of Brazil, the giggles begin. Hoyle's body seems to be
made of spaghetti; it is so fluid, one doubts the man has any joints at all. We wonder at
his dexterity, even as we laugh at his spoof of awkwardness - a lovely paradox.
Taking on a variety of personas, Hoyle explores
both Jack's personal history and the traditions of comedy. He becomes his Aunt Vesta,
reminiscing about Jack's childhood and their family, and also commenting on the entire
body of humor built on cross dressing. He becomes his teacher, Mr. Deasy, scolding Jack's
onstage antics in Hamlet. "Tragedy plumbs the heights," he says,
"Comedy merely scales the depths."
Throughout the evening, Hoyle reprises his own
versions of classic clown, vaudeville, and commedia dell'arte routines. We get the clown's
constant difficulty in dealing with the physical world around him. His foot stuck in a
bucket, he turns it into a dance. Ladders too short, ladders too long, packages that won't
open, things that won't fit in boxes, anchors that float and life preservers that sink.
One way or another the clown masters the things that master us.
As this very quick hour and a half of virtuosity
and wit unfolds, there are evocations of Hoyle's great predecessors. One can' t help but
to think from moment to moment: That's Sid Caeser! Harpo Marx! Buster Keaton! Seņor
Wences! Recognition of such influences is only acknowledgment that all those
performers are a part of the long history and tradition of comedy. As is Hoyle's Punch
and Judy show. Or his interpretation of the classic device of rapid character changes
as he disappears behind a screen and quickly reappears. He even uses his own silent
Hoyle mimes, sings, plays both the banjo and the
violin, juggles, talks accented gibberish. The sheer quantity of historical references he
calls up and the variety of traditional techniques that he has mastered are nothing less
than a marvel. That he has succeeded in putting his own stamp on the tradition, adding his
own innovations and insights, carries it to the next level of comic genius.
The biggest threat of all is change and the
arching plot line of The First 100 Years is the impending destruction of the
theater in which Proust resides; it is to be torn down to make way for a mall -
"Mallenium 2000." What else would a clown do, but dance with the wrecking ball?
Berkeley Repertory Theater performance, May 15, 1999
- Arthur Lazere ...