bindlenix and I have just gotten back from seeing Marcel Marceau at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Following is a review of the performance (spoilers) and some digressions.
I have no experience of the performance art of mime. I can identify the tropes: the painted face, the high waisted pants, the window wall, pulling rope. I have some inkling that it is a type of Parisian street entertainment, like Punch & Judy or the Harlequinade.
In the performaning arts I am not a hero-worshipper. I have found that in the area of musical performance age is not any guarantee of those elusive qualities that create a transcendent performance. To put it quite baldly, I was quite unsure as to whether or not this 80 year old man would be capable of a good show. Further, one the discernment of such I might not be capable. But if should never have seen him, I would have only the slightest idea of what expression the performance tradition he represents is capable. I would be in the position of Averroes, confounded in an attempt to understand Aristotle's descriptions of tragedy and comedy as storytelling without any example by which to imagine.
Each pantomime was opened by a title placard mounted on a scroll, held by one of Mr Marceau's proteges. The first was "The Creation of the World". The music for this piece seemed to be from a slow movement of one of the Mozart Horn Concerti. As the light came up on Mr Marceau, I had the thought that one without foreknowledge of the Christian creation myths, one might not have any conception of the intent of the sign-language-dance-like movements depicted. Like Haydn's oratorio The Creation, the Adam and Eve story brought the pantomime to a close. I was amused by the interaction between the snake and Eve, Eve and Adam, but suspicious at the comic nature of the interaction, and unsure if the expulsion from the Garden was tragic enough.
The second pantomime, "The Public Garden", took a lighter tone. Starting as a statue in a Parisian garden, Mr Marceau depicts the many visitors that can be observed in such a venue. A dandy, an elderly couple, a child with a ball, a man with an ice cream cart, a balloon salesman, a woman with a perambulator, a grandmother with many children, a street sweeper. The series of amusing studies ends with the statue again, creating a round formal structure out of what was a series of variations.
The third tableaux was titled "The Bird Keeper". It was one that I felt had a great deal of pathos even though it had comic moments. The action begins with Mr Marceau circling a spotlight, defining the bars of a large aviary. Having given us most of the setting, he opens a window towards the audience. Now the story begins. One by one, the bird keeper tempts a bird out of the aviary, and tosses them out the window. The first bird flies away without incident. The second bird, it is demonstrated, comes back, then is thrown out again and the window slammed shut. The third refuses to be tempted out of the cage. The bird keeper must enter the cage to catch it, whereupon he discovers himself locked inside. He circles the inside of the aviary, a signal of closure, retreats from the foreground, and begins to flap his hands and arms, himself becoming a bird. This tableaux comes to formal resolution, however the action of the end is uncertain. The bird keeper could have gone mad from isolation, might have metamorphosized into a bird, or may be dreaming of the same escape he offered the birds.
A courtroom drama was the topic of the fourth pantomime. Mr Marceau played the parts of the prosecutor, the attorney for the defense, the judge, and the accused, taking the part of the court bailiff to break between roles. I found it rather long, except for one moment in which the prosecutor relays the crime, a story inside a story, in mime.
The fifth pantomime was "Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death", which, according to the program note is a particularly famous etude of Mr Marceau's. As Mr Marceau walks in place, his posture proceeds through these ages of man. Between each era, his left hand rose and drew a curtain from above his forehead. As the lights dimmed on the death of the time traveler, somewhere in the audience behind me a small child lost his attention and cried. While unintended by the performer, it made a compelling suggestion of rebirth.
The second half began with three pantomimes as the comic character Bip: "Bip as a Lion Tamer", "Bip as a Street Musician", and "Bip and the Dating Service". After the first half, I found these pantomimes amusing, but I really could have foregone them in favor of more serious works. It's a personal failing, I know.
The finale was (I'm told by the program note, another celebrated tableaux) "The Mask Maker". In this tableaux, Mr Marceau changes facial expressions as he mimes the placement and removal of various masks. It culminates in quick changes between the masks of 'tragedy' and 'comedy', however the joyous mask becomes stuck. Attempts to pull it off do not work, after some sobbing (while wearing the opposite expression), a hammer and chisel are employed. Eventually the mask breaks and the stagelights dim.
Having eaten dinner, returned home, and put my thoughts together on the matinee, I am deeply impressed. I feel as though I have experienced a means of thick communication altogether new to me. I am amazed at both the structure of story and the depth of pathos that can be communicated in a performance tradition that has such origins in comedy and light entertainment.