Bill Irwin projects himself into the mind and soul of the artist in extremis in “Mr. Fox: A Rumination,” on the life and career of George L. Fox, a once-famous but long-forgotten 19th-century clown beloved for his white-face role of Humpty Dumpty. Supported by a well-drilled and versatile company, the clown-playwright offers a harrowing portrait of a man of talent gripped by every performer’s worst nightmares, from losing his artistic imagination to fading into historical oblivion. Show represents a strong if dark finish (after “The Harlequin Studies” and “The Regard Evening”) for Irwin’s full season at the Signature Theater Co.
Program insert giving biographical highlights of Fox’s 40-year career is indispensable pre-curtain reading, as play’s dreamlike, expressionist style leaves factual events open to interpretation. Show’s opening is itself ambiguous, as a pantomime clown (Irwin) appears backstage in an empty theater, identifies himself as Mr. Fox and announces he will be playing himself — implication being that the spirit of Fox lives on in the person of Irwin and, indeed, in every performer of the comic arts.
Irwin’s fascination with Fox is plain to see. After acquiring his vaudeville chops in famed family act “the Little Foxes,” Fox hit paydirt with his “Humpty Dumpty” pantomime show, a racy and raucous entertainment that opened in 1868 in New York and didn’t play itself out until 1875.
Fox may have been an unparalleled clown, but he was a lousy businessman who mismanaged his fortune and alienated major producers like Augustin Daly.
Mired in legal problems and falling prey to greedy managers, he undertook a grueling 14-month tour of 26 states, after which his mental and physical health declined. His death, in 1877 at 52, was variously attributed to poisoning from stage cosmetics, professional stress, financial strain, an onstage injury, exhaustion, stroke and grief. Irwin introduces an additional cause of death: the pure existential angst of being an artist.
Director James Houghton’s appropriately dour production style does all it can to reflect and intensify the morbid isolation of the creative clown. The backstage setting is stark and cheerless (credit Christine Jones for the austere design and James Vermeulen for the unforgiving lighting), and exits and entrances from strategically placed doors heighten the sense of terror from unknown people and unexpected sources. The abstract company acting style, deliberately blank and unengaged, puts human faces — but no hint of human feeling — to the overall air of menace.
Fox ventures into this cold landscape with no one to buffer him from his fate but his dresser and sole confidant, George Topack (a solid source of support in Marc Damon Johnson’s stand-up perf) until he, too is alienated.
Rambling on in the voice of a man who doesn’t trust his success and fears it might be snatched away, Irwin presents the drawn and haggard face of a clown between laughs. (The anxious expression is eerily like the one in the portrait of Fox in the program insert.) The impersonation is starkly brilliant, and as the play moves on to Fox’s disastrous career choices and increasingly desperate efforts to regain his artistic footing, Irwin’s expressive features seem to melt from an inner agony.
There is, however, one miscalculation to his dramaturgy. With Fox a ruination from the outset, the play offers only the barest intimation of his comic artistry. A routine from “Humpty Dumpty” in which battling clowns saw off one another’s limbs has a wonderful macabre quality. And Irwin’s graceful presentation of classic pantomime poses achieves a certain poetry in the fluid visual language of Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s clown costumes. But the vintage comedy material is fragmented within the dreamscape of Fox’s memory, and the one laugh-your-head-off number — the gleefully absurd “Dance of the Three-Legged Man,” choreographed and executed by Geoff Hoyle — is not even performed by Fox.
As the author of this “rumination,” Irwin has every right to focus on the inner life of the artist as he monitors, drop by drop, the artistic power that he feels draining out of his veins. Just the same, the audience can’t be blamed for wanting more than a glimpse of the art for which the artist martyred himself.