Review: ‘Fool Moon’

Bill Irwin and David Shiner bring their inspired lunacy to Los Angeles just in time to make this town forget last week's wall-rattler. "Fool Moon" pushes the envelope of physical comedy in this wildly chaotic, wordless send-up of manners, mores and everyday behavior. A hit on Broadway, the piece deserves jammed houses for its 11-week run here.

Bill Irwin and David Shiner bring their inspired lunacy to Los Angeles just in time to make this town forget last week’s wall-rattler. “Fool Moon” pushes the envelope of physical comedy in this wildly chaotic, wordless send-up of manners, mores and everyday behavior. A hit on Broadway, the piece deserves jammed houses for its 11-week run here.

Hilarious, hysterical, numbingly funny: Every superlative applies to this two-man entertainment, which defies traditional coverage. As a show, it oozes all the usual tired clown dressings — pratfalls, funny faces, squirt guns pointed at the aud. But Irwin, probably best known for “Northern Exposure” guest shots, and Shiner, a Cirque du Soleil grad, elevate the quotidian clown bits to a level of humor and sophistication that appeal to child, adult, aardvark, anyone.

Routines are more like precision dance pieces, choreography of the absurd, whether breaking into soft-shoe jigs that scream Twyla Tharp, or dipping into Marcel Marceau’s bag.

Irwin explores movement slowly from inside out, letting the aud in on the gag. He steps into a steamer trunk where his head slowly disappears, as though walking down a flight of stairs. The movement has been seen before; the quirky, knowing smile on his face hasn’t.

Irwin and Shiner are clowns only because no other word applies. Forget preconceptions. No smiling whiteface or flaming red Bozo hair here, no ridiculously exaggerated movement. With plain-faced simplicity, they offer finely honed physical observations of daily ritual — dating, driving, tipping their Chico Marx hats.

Two men stand waiting for a commuter train in oversized gray flannel suits. Testing each other’s mettle with an exchange of jabs to the stomach, they shrink and grow within the suits with each breath. With the body control of a caterpillar, Irwin breathes in and grows six inches. Shiner responds breathing out, deflating his height — a coupla white guys standing around stretching.

Much of the show operates on this competitive theme. If Shiner can jump through a hoop, maybe Irwin can outdo him.

The competition breeds a brilliant contempt that plays off their physical size. Shiner is a lean, gangly Ichabod Crane of a comedian. His reactions are broader than Erwin’s, more akin to the wild-eyed style of a silent movie star.

Contrarily, Irwin is compact and taut in bodily descriptions. His characters are timid, unsure, but often scheming. His fluid movement is poetic for a stocky man, but his face is his most elastic tool. Irwin is a thinking man’s clown. His reactions are subtle, sometimes a slow burn to the aud, sometimes a winsome smirk that says he’s winning the battle.

He often lets the aud stay one step ahead of him, but nonetheless fools them in the end. He is downright astounding in a Commedia harlequin take on Marceau’s David and Goliath mime.

“Fool Moon” would be nothing without the rambunctious bluegrass tones of the Red Clay Ramblers. In clown acts, loud brassy music is the norm. Irwin and Shiner wisely choose the softer, toe-tapping sound of the fez-wearing Ramblers, who inhabit the show’s third character. They offer tempo to the clowning with an array of horns, bells and odd noises. In between, they sing fast-paced country versions of songs like “I Crept Into the Crypt and Died.”

In several sketches, Irwin and Shiner wade the treacherous waters of audience participation. In less capable hands, such routines would not only bore the aud, but unnerve it. Irwin and Shiner successfully turn the laughs onto themselves.

After the final bit, a frenzied foray into shooting a movie with audience members, Shiner and Irwin complete the circle of moon references that dot the show. As the curtain drifts down, the loose-limbed pair floats benignly upward, seated on a large half-moon. They are no doubt headed where this show belongs.

Fool Moon

(Ahmanson-at-the-Doolittle Theatre, Hollywood; 1,006 seats; $ 46 top)

Production

A Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre production of a play in two acts created by Bill Irwin and David Shiner.

Creative

Set, Douglas Stein; costumes, Bill Kellard; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Tom Morse. Producing director, Gordon Davidson. Music by the Red Clay Ramblers. Opened and reviewed Jan. 24, 1994; runs through March 27.
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