• U.S.

Theater: Poet of Silence

2 minute read

Marcel Marceau, a mime conceivably without living equal, celebrates the Pyrrhic victories of the human spirit. He is a pantomimic accountant of the laughably saddening costs of being human. Mimicking a dynamiter, he blows himself up at pre cisely the moment when he is casually admiring his technical know-how. As a partygoer, he pirouettes through all the socia graces, only to get stupidly, staggering!) drunk. With his toes seemingly reading a tightrope in faltering braille, he teeters across the high wire, but only after the audience is made to know that courage can be the vanity of cowards. In the most affecting sketch of the evening at the New York City Center, Marceau plays a mask maker trying on his wares in a quick-change display of a bewildering variety of emotions, until his face gets stuck behind a mask of inane gaiety. He tugs at the fool thing, but it will not come off, and behind this frozen idiotic grin his body writhes in frustration and anger, his being sheds unseen tears of despair. When the mask is finally wrenched free, Marceau’s face is austere and desolate with pain, the soul of man forever entrapped, forever struggling to break out of the prison of his skin.

If Marceau’s art has an autumnal seriousness, his artistry bubbles with Gallic springtime vivacity. He mixes sweetness with strength. His head wobbles like a flower on a too-slender stalk, but his feet are sprung steel on points when he dances his soundless ballets. He is a theatrical master of total illusion. When he climbs an imaginary ladder, the rungs creak; when he leans against a nonexistent bar, the bar leans back with wooden stubbornness; when his outthrust palms slide feverishly along a make-believe wall, the air turns brick-solid.

Marceau has obviously tutored himself on early Charlie Chaplin. The Little Tramp wore a derby; Marceau’s Bip character sports a dented stovepipe hat. In The Tramp’s hand was a flower; from Bip’s hat sprouts a rose. Both share the knowledge that no matter how funny the pratfall, the heart is where the hurt is. In nursing that hurt, Marcel Marceau shows himself to be a stylish musician of motion, an exciting architect of empty space, an eloquent poet of silence.

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