San Francisco Theater Review: OLD HATS (A.C.T.)

by Jim Allen on September 19, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

Post image for San Francisco Theater Review: OLD HATS (A.C.T.)

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

David Shiner and Bill Irwin in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater - Photo by Kevin Berne.As a child, I always hated clowns. At best they were weird; at worst just plain scary. And, to top it off, they weren’t even funny, at least not to me. Why then were they always hovering at birthday parties like some ill-dressed stalker? Was there something I was missing? Would I ever be in on the joke?

Well, last year I finally was.

My light bulb moment came when I watched master clowns Bill Irwin (2005 Tony-winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and David Shiner (Cirque de Soleil) performing in Signature Theatre’s premiere production of Old Hats in New York. The missing element I’d been looking for, suddenly in great abundance, was context. Clowning with context! Everything resonated. Suddenly it all made sense.

David Shiner in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater - Photo by Kevin Berne.

Watching A.C.T.’s remounting of Signature’s Old Hats last night, I once again witnessed that same magic, but now it’s even better: This is a rare opportunity to experience two of the world’s finest clowns reducing a large audience to one, huge useless puddle of laughter (myself included) while simultaneously exposing our humanity and how we deal with the relentless existential struggles of life. And all structured as Vaudeville, no less.

David Shiner and Bill Irwin in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater - Photo by Kevin Berne

Whether fraught with meaning—Shiner’s heartbreaking yet luminous “Hobo”—or purely funny—the now-legendary “Magic Show” with Shiner as the cheesy, lounge lizard magician, and Irwin as his lovely, leggy assistant—the show is filled with pathos and the healing laughter of recognition. These two are showing us ourselves up there in all our joyous, goofy, fumbling glory.

Shaina Taub in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The immediate connection between these guys and the audience is sustained throughout, becoming a veritable love-fest, especially evident in two scenes requiring some very clever audience participation (and no, those are not shills pulled from the orchestra section; they’re truly hapless attendees). In one of these scenes, Shiner’s spoof of filmmaking, “Cowboy Cinema,” gives him an opportunity to display his mind-boggling mastery of improvisation.

David Shiner (right) and musician Jacob Colin Cohen (left) in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater - Photo by Kevin Berne.

Without giving too much away, I must also applaud Irwin’s beyond-brilliant parody of digital technology (“Mr. Businessman”), in which he demonstrates astonishing physical comedy and razor-sharp timing.

Bill Irwin, Shaina Taub, and David Shiner in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.The third member of this talented trifecta is musical director / singer / songwriter / pianist Shaina Taub, accompanied by four excellent musicians: Jacob Colin Cohen, percussion; Mike Brun, bass; Mike Dobson, percussion / foley artist; and Justin J. Smith, trumpet. Taub is the perfect musical foil for these two goofballs. Worldly, witty, and wry, she at times seems a bit like an impatient little sister, trying her best to keep her big brothers in line. Her wonderful, catchy songs, sharp, resonant singing, and clever patter combine to provide the show with additional color and humor.

David Shiner in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.Tina Landau’s direction is once again effectively seamless, as are the sets, costumes (G.W. Mercier), and lighting (Scott Zielinski). Wendall K. Harrington and Erik Pearson’s projections are dramatic and integral, taking the show to a whole new level. John Gromada’s sound design is likewise outstanding.

Run, don’t walk, to A.C.T.’s Geary Theater while these two comic geniuses are still appearing. It’s been 13 years since Irwin and Shiner last combined their unparalleled comic gifts on a San Francisco stage. Who knows when they’ll be back?

David Shiner and Bill Irwin in OLD HATS at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne.

 

photos by Kevin Berne

Old Hats
American Conservatory Theater
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street
scheduled to end on October 12, 2013
for tickets, call 415.749.2228
or visit www.act‐sf.org

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