At 79, three years younger than the pope, Marcel Marceau is still in good shape, with long, supple hands and a dancer’s articulate sense of placement. Of the 12 pieces he performed opening night at the Geffen Playhouse, his most recognizable included the Creation; Youth, Maturity and Old Age; and the Public Garden, with its large cast of boulevardiers, gossips, little kids, tired husbands, balloon venders and pious clerics who step in the mess eager dogs have left behind. Sharpest was the complete courtroom rendition of a thief on trial for murder — stentorian prosecutor, craven defense attorney, gallows-doomed thief; a would-be suicide who bungles his efforts and decides to live; and a shipboard traveler overcome by seasickness. Marceau’s comic timing and his storyteller’s precision remain impeccable.
Some of his allusions refer to another time — nobody kisses ladies’ hands anymore, and poor old Bip would be aghast at the floating malls modern luxury liners have become. But there’s nothing dated in his takes on what archetypes we all are, and how we can’t help caricaturizing ourselves no matter how unique we think we may be. It was a treat to hear the unforced laughter of kids in the audience discovering something new, and of gray heads touched and relieved to see that the old magic has held up.
Mime hasn’t had it so good over the past couple of decades. Aside from Bill Irwin and David Shiner, most of our popular depictions of those fey, skinny people in white face and battered top hats are of public pests best appreciated when jolted aside or pitched into a body of water. And, indeed, there’s something a little precious and unreal about mute characters who describe walls with gloved hands or imitate our walk.
When Marceau first came to national attention in the mid-1950s, largely through “The Ed Sullivan Show,” nobody much knew or cared that the art of mime reached (at least) as far back as ancient Greece. Here was a fellow who, without a lot of trickery, created an architecture of silence in which all kinds of people went about their business. They were touching, funny, absurd. Of the variety of audience reactions that greeted the opening of Marceau’s three-week run at the Geffen, one had to be the recognition of a career that’s been right up there with those of Charlie Chaplin, Andres Segovia, Vladimir Horowitz — performers whose dedication to their art has been in itself a captivating experience of discovery.
Whatever Marceau’s forbearing, sweet-tempered figure decided to conjure in this show, the natural face he returned to was strangely filled with angst. Its ghostliness seemed a reaction to a world in which nothing lasted longer than a figurative gesture.