Bill Irwin and David Shiner are clown world royalty. You can even say that they – and the Pickle Family Circus – are why we recognize clowning as an art form. A bit of recent history (along with a dollop of home town pride ) makes Old Hats, a show created by Irwin and Shiner, a very big deal.
This ability to turn tragedy into comedy is the heart of clowning.
History first: not too long ago, clowns were two-dimensional mutants with tired repertoires of lame tricks. The Pickle Family Circus and Cirque du Soleil changed all that. We’re smarter, now. When we see Cirque and its progeny, we watch the evolution of a tradition whose roots trace to 600 BCE. Clowning is as much part of our artistic heritage as Shakespeare’s Globe, the Greek chorus, and commedia del arte.
Thanks in part to Irwin and Shiner, clowning was returned to its proper place in public discourse. Old Hats includes nine numbers that will astound, amaze, and make you feel better about the universe, despite ISIS, the Ukraine, Gaza, and midterm elections. There’s no better reason to go to the theatre. You couldn’t be faulted, however, for going to the show just to marvel at the sheer physicality of these guys. Old Hats is about growing older in a clown’s body – a subject near and dear to those who feebly thwart increasing decrepitude. However, Old Hats brings us back to who we are – albeit without the split second timing of Irwin and Shiner, whose moves are so powerfully articulated that you can catch the intention through miles of tent pants and oversize shoes.
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You can also appreciate the seamless integration of theatre and tech, where boundaries between actor and technology are ever shifting. Irwin and Shiner step in and out of tablet devices, and their image gets whisked into a psychedelic melange. However, clowning remains an altogether human enterprise. A 5 member onstage band, featuring Shaina Taub, performs between numbers, adding color to the acts and giving Irwin and Shiner a chance to catch their breath. Taub is likeable, charismatic in a low key kind of way. She turns up the vibe and positively radiates during her last number with Irwin and Shiner.
Irwin’s views on the craft are intimately bound to this show. In an interview with Michael Paller, he stated “the further you get into it, life is about downsizing. It’s also about loss. One of my pet theorems in talking to acting students is that our job is to tell the story of loss. It’s really dangerous, because you can go wrong… People say, “What about gain? What about celebration? Yes, and yet those kind of things take care of themselves in life.” This ability to turn tragedy into comedy is the heart of clowning. Prepare to laugh for an entire two hours of Old Hats. Just don’t give the clowns on the red carpet outside ACT, those other clowns, too much grief.