It’s rare that a theatre experience succeeds in reaching seemingly effortlessly across the ages. Happenstance Theatre’s The Seven Ages of Mime, plying the ancient art in an hour of poetic silence, laugh-out-loud slapstick and historical storytelling,
delivers in both senses of the word, taking playgoers on a wild and enchanting ride through the vast and venerable history of the original performance art.
Our guides are Happenstance’s co-founders, the husband and wife team of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, who, in 1997, first brought the show to the Round House Theatre to rave reviews. Irresistibly drawn into the theatre space by a mélange musical featuring original recordings of French chansons, the jazz of Benny Goodman, the mournful strains of a Moroccan oboe, the beat of bossa nova and the rhythmic pulse of African drums, we are primed for an evening that resists definition. We will not be disappointed.
True to the enduring power of the ancient Greek theatre masks, the show, its seven short scenes dubbed “Ages” rather than Acts, brings us both sides of the human experience and condition in rapid-paced succession while giving us a lesson in the history of mime. Age I has Jaster as a chisel-featured, nose-in-the air, vainglorious Caesar who struts onstage to our shouts (in ever- increasing volume, as demanded by the doggedly insistent imperial attendant, Mandell) of “All hail!” This Caesar’s expectation of his own enduring power will be thwarted, however, and not by a brute enemy, but by nature: his oration is cut mortifyingly short by a bout of laryngitis. The remarkable elasticity of Jaster and Mandell’s musculature that we will see as the show progresses is hinted at here in their exaggeratedly pliable, silent-film-like grins and grimaces as the servant, suddenly inspired, comes up with a face-saving win-win for Caesar. And thus, we learn, is mime born.
Age II catapults the historical time line two thousand years ahead, from ancient Rome to the commedia dell’arte of classical Italy. Here, though, we have words — lots of them — with one small complication that, thanks to the skill of the actors, does not dilute the humor un poco pochino: they’re all in English-spiced Italianate gibberish. (Speaking with the two pagliacci after the show, I was surprised to learn that neither of them speaks or understands the language, but nonetheless know enough words to enable them to craft a hilariously authentic-sounding conversation.) Interspersing the dialogue with such sure-fire rhyming laugh-getters as Pantalone (the unseen villain) and macaroni, and Arlecchino’s (in English, Harlequin, played by Jaster) puppy-eyed offering of his “carte VISA” to meet Columbina’s uncompromising demand for lire, Jaster’s wide-eyed innocence runs smack into Mandel’s attitudinal chin-flick, then runs loudly into some literal smacks from Pantalone offstage (to the delight of the several small fry in the audience).
In a wonderful Chaplinesque tribute, having lost both Columbine and lire and sitting mournfully on the red blanket on which he’d hoped to share a “picnica” with his lady love, Arlecchino holds out his empty plate with a clown-like frown, only to have a fly land on it. Undeterred, in a way that recalls the relish taken by the great Charlie as he makes the best of a bad situation by chewing his shoe in The Gold Rush, Arlecchino makes an Epicurean feast out of the tiny creature. It will have its revenge, reflected in an equally Chaplinesque moment in Jaster’s priceless contortions, accompanied by loud intestinal buzzing.
Age III is a special treat for film buffs. In a scene adapted from Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s 1945 masterpiece “Les enfants du paradis” (Children of Paradise), Jaster is the beloved 19th-century French mime Baptiste Debureau who silently worships the actress Garance. In a delicate, achingly tender ballet (even the little ones were moved to hushed stillness), here the actress is instead a Greek statue, incarnated by an alabaster, elegantly motionless Mandel, adored from afar by Jaster’s eternally hopeful harlequin. Repeatedly chased away by an unseen guard whose peremptory whistle shrieks through the air, Debureau dares at last to bring his idol a bright bouquet of ruby-red blooms, their richness a stunning contrast to her classic pallor. As in the film, his protestations of love will come to naught. Unlike in the film, we are left believing, as his love awakens her to life, that her heart remains of marble, her untouchable coolness underscored by the clear white light that accentuates the icy purity of her skin.
In a tribute to the late 19th century’s Golden Age of Circus and its most recognizable and universally beloved 20th-century practitioners, the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball (who would introduce it to a new generation with Harpo as her guest in a 1955 episode of “I Love Lucy”), Age IV welcomes us into the Big Top. Identically outfitted in signature black-tux-and-top-hatted ringmasters’ garb, Mandel and Jaster recreate what was originally known as “The Broken Mirror.” A highly suspicious and relentlessly competitive mirror-image duo, with Mandel the real deal and Jaster the slyly incorrigible imposter who mimics her gestures with minute precision, the two take us back to what we like to think of as a more innocent time, while reminding us that the abiding constant, then as now, is human nature.
Age V brings us full circle: from the laryngitic Caesar mouthing the words of a servant crouched behind him, to the silent film, its characters, played onstage by Jaster and Mandel, speaking soundlessly as the intertitles screen behind them. Recalling Age II, we see again — this time, the impersonation an intentional and affectionate homage — our iconic cinematic mimic, Charlie Chaplin (Jaster in an uncanny personification), as scenes from his “A Dog’s Life” (1918) and “Modern Times” (1936) flicker on the wall.
Age VI is a frolicsome salute to Jaster’s teacher and mentor Marcel Marceau’s “Bip plays David and Goliath,” with Jaster mastering both roles with split-second timing, emerging from behind the hinged screens as either of the two antagonists. As Goliath his body seems to grow exponentially as it looms with huge ferocity over the small but quick-witted David, who delights in teasing him to a point of uncontrolled rage — only to emerge completely unscathed, happily continuing his challenge till it’s time to launch, almost as an afterthought, the kayoing catapult.
As our sweeping survey began with the birth of the art of mime, it’s altogether fitting that it end — no, not at its demise; thanks to artists like Jaster and Mandell, there’s no end yet in sight — but with a view toward new beginnings. Age VII’s “Post-Modern Clowns” offers a look into a future that infuses classic mimic tropes with a sharply post-modern edge. How does this play out onstage? Make the trip to Montgomery College’s Performing Arts Center — you’ll be glad you took the whole family — and find out for yourself.
Note: Finding the theatre itself has something of a post-modern edge. Those unfamiliar with the college’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus, which is in the concluding stages of an ambitious four-year expansion project, may be briefly stymied by the aesthetically pleasing but largely invisible names identifying the buildings, compounded by a dearth of signage around the campus. Leaving for the theatre a bit early to allow for possible confusion in finding your way is suggested.
The Seven Ages of Mime
Created and performed by: Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell
Produced by Happenstance Theatre
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
The Seven Ages of Mime plays through May 2, 2010.
For details and tickets, click here.