The Harlequin Studies – Bill Irwin

The Harlequin Studies – Bill Irwin

One man on a bare stage under a strong white light–show business doesn’t get more unforgiving than that. But the engaging Bill Irwin needs no forgiveness. Poised, in complete command of a graceful body in eloquent motion(ditto his mobile face), Irwin reincarnates the Harlequin, lead player and clown of the once classic commedia dell’arte troupes. He adapts ten Harlequin skits, among them the lonely boy, the dancer, and the (improbable) tax cutter, though the Harlequin’s chief role was to serve a Magnifico or Pantalone (Paxton Whitehead). Well, nominally serve since his spirit was deeply anti-authoritarian–Irwin conveys his independence even in the angle of his little black cap.

Otherwise, Harlequin seizes gleefully on every chance to mock or thwart the Pantalone in his chief business of lustfully pursuing the nubile maiden (Marin Ireland). She, for her part, is no more inclined to accept his suit than that of the swaggering, Capitano (Rocco Sisto), handsome in green velvet with an outrageously feathered hat.

The men’s pursuit condenses two of the odd thousand or so commedia sketches that have been preserved in French and Italian archives. Irwin need not have read any since many of their actions have passed into the comic repertory. But he must have seen and studied the famous illustrations by Duchartre showing an antic Harlequin cavorting, tumbling, leering, bedeviling and impersonating a learned doctor, a lawyer, a woman; spanking a child, engaging in a risque tete a tete with Columbine. In one sketch adopted by Irwin, Harlequin’s "double jointed" image is male in one profile and woman on the other.

Remarkably enough, given the physical nature of this comedy and general habits of performance nowadays, Irwin’s Harlequin is sexless. He yearns and sighs mightily, mournfully over a hatrack draped in a tablecloth that evokes an absent woman–that’s romance, always elusive to the boy. (In this connection, the musical accompaniment might have been lyrical at this point whereas it’s consistently percussive, almost martial.) But while the Harlequin illustrations, like all the commedia dell’arte pictures, typically feature lewd and scatological gestures and events to thumb the author’s nose at social convention, the good-hearted fool on stage never performs a sexual joke–unless you count one bit of clowning with a broom while lackadaisically sweeping up. At a time when every stand-up comedian bumps and grinds through schtick, Irwin’s hapless, goofy fellow recalls the innocence of sweet clowns like Chaplin’s little tramp (Irwin adopts a mustache and hat) or the innocent Laurel and Hardy who also avoided a sexual edge.

Romance arrives as a daydream, interestingly set on a raised, cut-out box stage where Harlequin leans his arms while watching a piece like a puppet show. The dream Harlequin (Steven T.Williams) is no less a man than the dream Captain (Andrew Pacho), and as rich as the Dream Pantalone (John Oyzon). Gymnasts float and tumble from this upper stage to the main one in utterly enchanting fashion, as if through air, all of them in Harlequin costume, all accomplished acrobats. In this, the company completely evokes a commedia performance where dancing and singing were primary. A few lines of dialogue, say, by the Girl protesting to her heavy Father, appear in the playlet, "Harlequin and His Master Wed," but they never break the prevailing spell of silent mime. The action, getting a table laid in preparation for the Master’s wedding, calls for Irwin’s inspired choreography with a tablecloth and a few glasses.

Slapstick comedy is rarely harmless, the hero usually gets to deliver and receive a few blows, even fake a few broken bones, it’s part of the game. Irwin’s Harlequin, instead, is the victimized dupe of aggressors. When not dreaming of triumphs, he’s charming and fated to lose. The master at one point hauls him by the ear; the girl kicks his rear end at his invitation; go ahead and punish me he mimes, I deserve it. The show omits one well known sketch in which Harlequin plays the fall guy for a brute, but Irwin projects the attitude. It’s a sign of our times when even the Harlequin’s boastful, strutting threat, "I take no guff from anyone," even that much aggression is toned down or out. It isn’t missed. The show is a delight.

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