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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
OLD HATS
at Signature Theatre

PROFESSIONAL CLOWNS
By MATT WINDMAN

  Bill Irwin and David Shiner/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Clowning experts Bill Irwin and David Shiner, whose wordless, two-actor physical comedy hit Full Moon received wild acclaim on Broadway in 1993 and received encore engagements in 1995 and 1998 due to popular demand, have finally reunited with Old Hats, a similarly old-fashioned, freewheeling, vaudevillian extravaganza of sketches, songs, elastic movement, oversized shoes and baggy pants, which just premiered Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre Company’s fancy new digs.

Since 1998, 63-year-old Irwin has established himself as a fine dramatic actor, appearing on Broadway in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, winning a Tony Award for the latter. In 2004, he wrote and headlined three new clowning-related projects for Signature. 59-year-old Shiner, on the other hand, originated the role of the Cat in the Hat in the 2000 Broadway production of Seussical (although he was immediately replaced by Rosie O’Donnell and Cathy Rigby) and directed the Cirque du Soleil spectacle Kooza.

Although they are more than capable of thrilling any audience with their physical comedy abilities alone, Old Hats, which has been slickly staged by Tina Landau, is often supplemented with digital video projections. For instance, the show begins with the plush red curtain parting to reveal Irwin and Shiner running for their lives, with a digital projection behind them depicting a huge boulder rolling dangerously towards them. In a later sketch titled “Mr. Business,” Irwin portrays a modern fellow who is so consumed by his electric devices that he is eventually swallowed up whole by his own supersized image.

Irwin and Shiner are also aided by a third player, though a most unlikely one: the quirky, retro but ironic singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, who appeared in the 2006 Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera as Polly Peachum. In between Irwin and Shiner’s physical feats, she plays either the piano or ukulele and sings some cute, very sarcastic ditties while aided by three other resourceful band members. Her most memorable song, “Mother of Pearl,” begins with the jarring line “feminists don’t have a sense of humor” and ends with a dedication to Michelle Bachmann.

The show might benefit from some judicious cutting. It currently runs two hours without intermission but would probably fare better at 90 minutes without any pause. But then again, it’s hard to choose which skits ought to be cut. The pair is especially terrific in “The Debate,” in which they play competing politicians scheming to outshine each other through vain displays, and “The Magic Act,” the act one finale where Shiner plays a cheesy illusionist and Irwin, dressed in drag, is his assistant, who grows especially jealous when Shiner takes interest in a pretty young gal from the audience. 

 


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