HOW MANY WORDS does it take to review a silent movie? Somewhere between the sound of a tree falling in the empty woods and finding the elbows on an arm chair, there's a perfectly mundane, reasonable answer to that. However, as a full house watched Geoff Hoyle's one-man circus unfold in ATC's season finale, The First Hundred Years, the question hovered precariously over my head like those dozen-odd paint cans suspended from the scaffolding with coarse rope.
Like mysteriously suspended paint cans, dialogue is the kind of thing critics, playwrights -- well, all of us, really -- should approach with some caution: it often explains too much while saying too little. Frugal word-shopping is hardly the hallmark of our times though, is it. Perhaps that's why this play delves into another time to shed light -- and boy, is it a bright one -- on our own.
The ATC stage is dressed down like a theater -- the dilapidated Liberty Theatre, with an orchestra pit that gives new meaning to the word. Filled with more junk than a pack rat's basement, it's nonetheless a strategic collection. Nothing's out of place or short on purpose, from those hanging cans collecting the resonant "bwip" of unseen water dripping somewhere above the drafty rafters, to the onstage porcelain commode, an old Victrola record player, platters of big-band vinyl, stacks of dishes, cardboard boxes, drapes, costumes, film and slide projectors, an exercise bike and a TV with a foil antenna, which, if you were playing a game of word association, might inspire the declaration, "Peking duck!"
Ensconced between the pit and a stage of props and half-sets, humbly (but with increasing vitality as he discovers an unexpected audience in his abandoned house), is comedian Jack Proust (Hoyle), an aging actor whose fictional career spans the whole of the 20th century. A once-famous circus clown, silent film actor, TV variety show gag-man and reluctant spokesperson for Kleeno Cleanser, he's an artist imitating a life stamped with an expiration date sometime in 1967.
The abandoned Liberty is thus the perfect symbol: his life is the theater, the world his stage, and the seats are empty and full of dust. Twenty-five years have passed; and a distant rumble, like bombs or thunder, doesn't bode well for his immediate future.
Comedian Hoyle, who developed The First Hundred Years together with Berkeley Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Tony Taccone, certainly shares the same wardrobe as Proust. Himself a veteran of the fabulous Cirque du Soleil, Hoyle made a splash on Broadway in recent years, earning a Drama Desk award nomination for the role he created for Zazu in the musical adaptation of The Lion King. A five-time NEA grant winner, his travels have included theatrical performances with companies in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and Russia. He is a studious fan of the circus, a passion that led to work with three such traveling companies, a grant to visit circuses in Latvia and Russia, and that informs his solo performance on the ATC stage (a world premiere for Tucson audiences).
This 90-minute homage to the art of physical comedy juxtaposes past and present with help from "The Kid," a sneaker-clad, beeper-wearing, juvenile sophisticate who's infiltrated the ranks. More living prop than sidekick, her minor role is engagingly played by UC Berkeley sophomore Rosalie Ward. It is to The Kid that Proust gives, quite literally, the performance of his life, imparting along the way a bit of entertainment history, autobiography, pop-culture commentary and theatrical magic.
His fear and fascination with theatre is a running theme, from a childhood collision with a Punch and Judy puppet show (to which this sympathetic reviewer can wholeheartedly relate), to the rising floodwaters of commercial entertainment that first buoy but eventually sink his performance career.
En route on this misadventure, Hoyle/Proust is a cast of characters unto himself, acting out tried-and-true sketches to explain props from "the old days," and recreating aunts, actors, managers and mentors to explain his life. It could just as accurately be called The Last Hundred Years, touching as it does upon all the threads of comic genius linking the circus to vaudeville to Hollywood and high-tech, special effect-laden modern theatre.
True to the forms he reveres, Proust uses every slapstick and hat trick in the book while keeping his spoken words spare. What monologue and dialogue he engages is equally timed for effect, and deployed with wit and dexterity. As little of it as there is, you'll still miss half of it to the guffawing laughter.
But not all subtlety is lost, here. Alfons Alberti, the Parisian master whose heavily accented instruction helps put that traumatizing Punch and Judy puppet show into a commedia dell'arte perspective, is one instance wherein Hoyle's clowning steps gingerly into a chapter of art history. He's also recreated a few reels of scratchy, black-and-white silent film starring Proust in his heyday of high comedy. One of these, nothing more than the actor rendered ridiculous crying in the rain, is soon joined by the silhouette of a violinist -- Proust, playing a melancholy solo that turns this unexplained silliness into a touching tribute to his father's memory.
Clowning comes down to survival of the fittest, Hoyle's athletic antics allude, and so he delivers his gag-a-minute performance like life depends on it. It's the fear and fascination, transformed but revealed, full circle. For with each nod to legends like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the like, we see Proust as a dying breed, swallowed up by the modern machinery.
These days, even on dilapidated stages carefully sculpted with the latest audio equipment and poly-urethane innovations, it remains to be seen how well The First Hundred Years will fare across the land. Though far funnier, it certainly won't draw the crowds of the latest "talkie" in the local multiplex. And it probably won't garner as much praise as The Lion King. "The first hundred years are the hardest," Proust admits. "The rest takes about a minute and a half."
The First Hundred Years, an Arizona Theatre Company production, continues with evening and matinee performances through April 29 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets range from $20 to $32, available at Dillard's and the ATC box office. Rush tickets are available for half-price at the ATC box office only, one hour prior to curtain. Call 622-2823 for reservations and information.