The First 100 Years

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! Se�or 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 movies.

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 The sheer quantity of historical references he calls up and the variety of traditional techniques that he has mastered are nothing less than a marvel.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?

Reviewed from Berkeley Repertory Theater performance, May 15, 1999Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.