I still remember how hard I laughed and how much I enjoyed every minute of Fool Moon, the amazing two-person clown show -- if I can put it like that for now -- starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner, which I saw about 15 years ago. When I found out the two were returning to San Francisco in a new show, Old Hats, I immediately said, "I am so there." And I was. If you read no further, let me just add one more word: GO!
Irwin and Shiner are inspired, beyond-deft physical comedians. Shiner lives in Europe and I've seen him only in these two shows, but I've been a fan of Irwin's since I moved to the Bay Area in 1980. By then, he wasn't with the renowned Pickle Family Circus anymore, but I'd seen him in a movie, actually: Popeye, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. Before coming here, I'd lived on the island of Malta (long story), where Popeye was filmed. I didn't know then that some of the funniest characters in this fun movie, directed by Robert Altman, were played by the guys who became the most famous Pickles: Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, and Larry Pisoni. (I know; the movie didn't get great reviews and no one seems to remember it, but I do! And it's on Netflix. Just sayin.) Just a few years later, after his jaw-droppingly entertaining The Regard of Flight, Irwin earned a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant--the first performing artist to be awarded one.
Since then, I've seen Irwin in everything from Samuel Beckett's wordless Texts for Nothing to Molière's Scapin (thanks to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, which also brought us Fool Moon and Old Hats) to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, opposite Kathleen Turner, for which he won a Tony in 2005. Or should I say, he won a Tony! For doing Albee! Perhaps I needn't have been quite so impressed by his verbal dexterity. Shiner, too, has been in films, if not as many as Irwin; and in Old Hats, there's a segment toward the end where the two slip into random bits of mimicry from The Wizard of Oz, also hilarious. They dance, too.
But mainly, in Old Hat's nine segments, Shiner and Irwin offer the best wordless physical comedy you'll ever see. As with Fool Moon, the show incorporates musicians, in this case, Shaina Taub, a dynamic singer, dancer, pianist, and accordion player, and her four-piece band. Now around age 60, the clowns let us know they need these musical interludes so they can rest up between bits. But when they're onstage, they don't seem to have aged since the Fool Moon days.
The longest bit in Old Hats is "Cowboy Cinema," for which Shiner selects people in the audience to play two cowboys who fight over a woman in a saloon and the director trying to film them in an old-timey movie. Shiner's the exasperated cameraman, and half the laughter comes from his reactions to both the surprisingly good and the not so good "actors." As events proceed, laughs build on laughs until you can hardly breathe. With different "actors" in each performance, there's room for the unexpected: On the evening I was there, the jealous cowboy flung open the "doors" of the bar so hard, they fell off the stand-alone wood frame and crashed to the floor. Then, to punctuate the hilarity, so did the antlers hanging above them. So funny!
The most inspired segment came early on, and I doubt mere words can do it justice. In "Mr. Business," Irwin interacts on the street with his cell phone and tablet just like any tech-addicted modern being, until a version of himself appears in his digital devices. The timing here involves reacting to the moving images on the devices: At one point, Irwin leans into his tablet and you'd swear you're seeing his face moving into the frame--not a filmed image of his face but his face--as if he'd stepped into an open window. Interacting so believably with a moving image once or twice would be impressive. Doing a whole routine in this way, always perfectly timed, seems almost beyond human ability.
The fact that the rest of the show did not seem less because of this major high point tells you everything you need to know about Old Hats. Let me just say again: GO.
Through Oct. 12, Old Hats, presented by American Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater, 405 Geary St., S.F., 415.749.2228, act-sf.org.