What do you call a mime who talks? That would be a clown. And what do you call a clown who writes his own comic material? That would make him a playwright. And when this multifaceted mime-clown-playwright happens to be Bill Irwin, he gets his own season at the Signature Theater Co., whose previous playwrights-in-residence include the likes of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. Viewed in this context, the opener to Irwin’s solo season, “The Harlequin Studies,” is no theatrical groundbreaker. It is, however, a touching tribute to the traditions of clowning, whose roots go back to the commedia dell’arte troupes of the 15th century. It is also a master clown’s sweet way of passing on his performance craft to a new generation.
Irwin and his longtime collaborator, Doug Skinner, couldn’t be more ingratiating in the so-designated “Preamble” to this two-part piece. In professorial gowns and mortar-board caps as academics (always good for a laugh), the “Dottori” pop out of a vaudevillian’s trunk and prattle eruditely on their theme that all of Western culture, high and low, descends from the improvisational performance style, athletic physical techniques, zany comic business and archetypal character types of commedia tradition.
Furthermore, the masked figure of harlequin — “the archetypal rogue, the dishonest servant, the master trickster, the avatar of appetite” — has embedded himself in our collective consciousness. The quicksilver figure in the patchwork costume and rather sinister mask (handsomely executed by costumer Zuber) is, so to speak, the ur-character who transformed himself through the ages into clowns from Chaplin to Robin Williams.
Moving on to “The Studies,” Irwin is joined by the full company — including three young harlequins who dazzle the eye with their lithe acrobatic leaps and tumbles — to show us the merry trickster at work. Although the classic comic turns illustrated by the likes of Paxton Whitehead, Rocco Sisto and Marin Ireland’s saucy “Girl” are performed with appropriate skill and zest, Irwin’s wit flags when he tries to adapt them for modern sensibilities. Verbally, the sketches of this ancient rogue as a Tax Cutter, or as Two Faced Harlequin, or even locked in eternal combat with his Abusive Employer, simply don’t cut the mustard in merriment.
Douglas Stein’s gorgeous set — a shape-shifting architectural wonder of raw beams and flowing curtains that turns the performance space into generous playing areas and side stages — is transformed one last time for “Harlequin and His Master Wed.”
We see more of Irwin, thank the gods of comedy, in this extended playlet about the archetypal battle of power between Master and Servant. A disarming sequence in which a forlorn Harlequin, stung by his master’s decision to bring a wife into their household, falls in abject romantic love with a coat rack is Irwin at his best: foolish, charming and human. It’s as clever a piece of serious clowning as his rubbery routine, performed early in the show, of climbing up and down the imaginary staircase inside the private world of his vaudeville trunk — and as enchanting as the marionette piece that he does as an encore.
But the playlet is too talky — and the talk too trivial — to allow rejoicing that Bill Irwin has found his playwright’s voice.