Passing Spectacle Vol. VI, No. 9


Exploring  The Art of Laughter

Marcello Magni in Marcel

It isn’t very often that we come face to face with perfection or even near perfection. A double bill presented at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, Marcel and The Art of Laughter brought us as close to that ideal state as we can hope to get.

Although the program begins with eponymously titled Marcel, perhaps we should begin our discussion with the latter piece, The Art of Laughter, a solo lecture/demonstration whose sixty minutes fly by on the wings of irresistible laughter.  In it the Belgian clown Jos Houben explores his hypothesis that when man inhabits any posture other than the vertical he is potentially laughable.  In those fleeting sixty minutes Houben demonstrates with unerring comic virtuosity the various and inexhaustible comic possibilities inherent in the state of non-verticality.

Had Marcel been presented in second place  following the lecture, it would have offered us an extended example of Houben’s thesis in an imagined confrontation of two characters and an affirmation of his idea that physical comedy needs action which is often a demonstration of disproportion.

In Marcel, there are two players:  one straight (literally, as in vertical).  This is played with austere humorlessness  by Houben.  The title character Marcel (Marcello Magni ) is cramped, bent, and stumbling, in other words, the very antithesis of verticality.   He is being put through some undefined test, which he ultimately fails, by his examiner (Houben).  In the course of his examination Marcel falls the victim of an endless range of physical comedy antics performed  on a ramp that is neither vertical nor horizontal, but a rising curve that provides ample stumbling blocks to the ever-eager Marcel, as he valiantly struggles to maintain his verticality but continually falls short of that ideal.

During the course of his determined efforts Marcel is subject to various forms of pain and misery demonstrating as the lecturer would later tell us that, yes, cruelty can be funny. And certainly laughter doesn’t care about dignity.  We also see how laughter rises in relation to our expectations, i.e. by surprise.

Throughout the lecture and the presentation both performers display a level of virtuosity of performance that not only seems effortless, but ironically reveals an unexpected humanity. It also reveals the universality of our physical condition.  Whereas most circus performances demonstrate how we can overcome or conquer the physical condition, clowning and comedy reminds us of how difficult and often fruitless our effortless to that end can be.

In addition to being vastly entertaining, both pieces are also gently instructive. Houben is, after all, a master teacher and his observations about the human condition and how easily it can turn into comedy are eminently useful to any who would seek to make us laugh.

In Marcel, the title character embodies the human gag that we all are.  Faced with a multitude of obstacles we keep trying to keep our balance (our verticality) as best we can.  It should be pointed out that Magni is no longer a young man, but despite the fact that his body no longer displays the agility of youth, he still has boundless energy and an indefatigable spirit.  As the program notes provided by the artists themselves inform us, “For marcel the battle is never gained, but it is never lost either.”

By way of providing background, program notes tell us that “The Art of Laughter began as a master class in which Jos Houben explained what he spends his life doing: teaching clowning, comedy and slapstick, doctoring and fixing people’s material so it stands up and flies.  As Houben began playing it in front of audiences, it became something more: an almost philosophical, maybe anthropological, but certainly not logical conference about comical behavior and the uniquely human phenomenon of laughter.”  Hence its appeal to both the practicing clown and the audience who would benefit in laughter.

As the pair have performed around the world they have garnered the admiration and praise of many other performing artists. Peter Brook, the international celebrated theatre director notes, “Jos goes way beyond what he can explain in words…what he has to say is expressed in every inch of his finely tuned instrument .”

David Shiner, a clown of renown in his own right adds,   “Jos Houben and Marcello Magni are two towering figures representing some of the highest form of physical theatre and clowning existing today.  They are splendidly brilliant.”

Jos Houben in The Art of Laughter

Magni is Italian and heavily invested in Commedia Dell’Arte. Both he and Houben studied at Jacques Lecoq chool and with Philippe Gaulier, Monika Pagneux and Pierre Byland.  They are Co-founders of Théâtre de Complicité a theatrical company dedicated to creating comic works . Marcel and The Art of Laughter is a production of C.I.C.T/Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord.

The New Victory Theatre Asks Kids

to Believe in Magic

Jason Bishop

More than anything it his personality and style of presentation that distinguishes Jason Bishop from his many peers in the performance of prestidigitation .  Bishop is one of the least flamboyant practitioners of this art that I have ever encountered.  In that sense he is the perfect performer to introduce magic to a young audience which is exactly what New York’s  New Victory Theatre caters to and where he is enjoying an extended run through the holiday season with his show titled Believe in Magic.

In keeping with what now seems to be common practice in certain segments of the performing arts, when we first meet him, Bishop is not dressed in any sort of traditional costume one might expect to find a theatrical magician wearing.  He could walk straight out of the theatre onto West 42nd St. and be unnoticed on the sidewalk.  If he is casual at the outset of his performance, he dresses down even further for Act II.  By then he has either won or lost us entirely.  Given his casual, laid-back style of performance it is more likely the former than the latter.  He has an especially easy manner with kids from the audience whom he enlists for help, but at the same time manages to improvise some ad lib humor that is more likely to land with adults in the audience than the moppets on stage.  At one point he even goes so far as to interject a bit of political humor in the instructions he provides one of his young assistants.

Few of his illusions are particularly novel, but he pulls them off with an easy charm. There is lots of levitation, various escapes, transformations and a good bit of sleight of hand for which he employs a movie screen onto which his moves are enlarged and projected thanks to a television camera.  One of his best illusions involves an ordinary light bulb that vanishes on cue and into which he ultimately transports a crumpled bit of paper.

For a bit of variety to the proceedings he introduces his dog Gizmo, a Yorkie Terrier, for some charming disappearances.

The second half of the show relies more heavily on theatrical effects than the first half.     After a fascinating numbers game involving everyone in the audience, and before we knew it, we are engulfed in a snow storm of confetti-like snowflakes.  And then a bit more levitation, not quite as impressive as that displayed in the first half despite the fact that both magician and his female assistant are elevated simultaneously.    The performance ends somewhat anti-climatically with card manipulation.

One intriguing credit listed among the technical designers and directors is the name Jim Steinmeyer, who is listed as illusion consultant. For those who keep track of such credits (i.e. people like me) Steinmeyer was also the illusion consultant on Ringling’s Zing, Zang Zoom.  The New York Times has hailed him “the celebrated invisible man” behind many of the world’s best illusions.  He has created illusions for David Copperfield, Ricky Jay, Doug Henning and Siegfried and Roy.  Bishop refers to Steinmeyer as an all-around genius and acknowledges that his contributions to this show go way beyond just the illusions, all of which helps identify the level of magic on display in Believe in Magic.