Send in the Clown

Sitcom: Bill Irwin, left, and Rocco Sisto in Harlequin Studies.Photo: Joan Marcus

Some art forms have worn less well than others, notably the epic poem and the commedia dell’arte. The prose novel killed the epic, but it is less clear what offed the commedia. Was it the circus, silent-movie comedy, sitcoms, or a change in our mentality? Whatever the case, when the clever Bill Irwin and his henchmen, plus one henchwoman, start popping up in The Harlequin Studies, which he conceived and staged, they seem to be trailing behind them the mantle of desuetude.

Irwin has refurbished some of the time-honored plots and characters: Pantalone, the miserly old master; Harlequin, his roguish servant; the Captain, an arrogant soldier; and his daughter, the blushing maiden here called the Girl, whom he would marry off to the geezer for his money. Additionally, we get three acrobats in harlequin togs performing impressive stunts, and there is a band of three, whose pianist and leader, Doug Skinner, has composed the rambunctious music and acts in a preamble with Irwin, in which two dopey academics discuss the quiddity of the commedia.

Many in the opening-night audience found these shenanigans rib-tickling, and certainly Irwin moves with the requisite rubberiness and mugs like one to the mannerism born. That excellent comedian Paxton Whitehead is wasted on Pantalone, given little to shine with; Rocco Sisto, a lesser comic, makes the most of his shtick. Marin Ireland postures suitably as the Girl, who finds liberation through harlequinade.

Douglas Stein’s set is thoroughly minimal, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes uphold the tradition. But the chief virtue of the show is its brevity. An hour or so goes by painlessly enough; what I do find worrisome is that Signature Theatre Company will be offering a season of Irwin: His bag of tricks is capacious but hardly bottomless.

Bold Girls, by the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, is about four Catholic Belfast women who make an uneasy best of submersion in a civil war. Marie’s husband has perished some years ago, but she provides for herself and two kids. Cassie, the restless one, is prepared to abandon her two children for a dreamed-of escape. Her philandering husband is in jail, as is her adored father, a bad husband to her mother, Nora, whom she dislikes (though she is proud of Nora’s having stood up to the English soldiery, given to trampling hard-won patches of garden). There is also Deirdre, the teenage waitress, who behaves badly, but for a pretty good reason.

The play is not without interest, although it contains a couple of whopping improbabilities. As staged by the 29th Street Rep, however, it drove me out of the theater at intermission, to read the rest at home. This is partly because the first half is mired in exposition, partly because the theater is too small and ill-equipped to do scenic justice, and partly because the four actresses (Susan Barrett, Paula Ewin, Heidi James, and Moira MacDonald), though perfectly adequate and seemingly at ease with the local lingo, failed to grab me. Now, this may appear petty, but a play in which the epithet wee, however popular in Belfast, crops up every few minutes is a wee bit too twee for me. It’s wee this and wee that until you feel like climbing up the wee walls.

Otherwise, Munro’s language is apt, even if it does turn a wee bit self-consciously poetic in the soliloquies through which the characters reveal themselves to the audience while the lights dim to moody monologue illumination. This is in the script, so don’t blame the lighting designer (Douglas Cox) or the director.

That director is Ludovica Villar-Hauser, whose work, though inoffensive, is not quite up to the grandeur of her name. I did find it peculiar that she cast as the character who wants to lose weight an extremely willowy actress, and as another woman, supposed to be of normal appearance, an overweight actress. Life, of course, can be illogical, but can casting afford to be so?

Send in the Clown