Clowns rule in “Old Hats,” a brilliant oddball of a show written and performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner, who originally teamed up to create their 1993 Tony-winning tour de force, “Fool Moon.” Everything old is new again, in this comic puree of ancient vaudeville routines, traditional circus acts, and classic mime pieces, along with silly tap dances and ukulele solos — all overhauled with biting wit for a modern-day sensibility and smartly staged by Tina Landau. Girl wonder Nellie McKay takes care of the vocals, delivering bouncy songs that contain little time bombs of bitterly ironic humor.
“The Hobo,” Shiner’s heart-tugging impersonation of Emmett Kelly’s sad circus clown, is the show’s respectful tip of the old hat to the immortal traditions of the classic circus clown that shaped their art. Irwin actually trained at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus’ Clown College before he joined the Pickle Family Circus. Shiner debuted with Canadian Cirque du Soleil and went on to tour with the big national circuses of Europe.
But it takes genius, as well as affection, to transform those familiar baggy-pants-and-silly-hats routines into a working clown’s irreverent but thoughtful reflections on the contemporary society he lives in.
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That point is made in the opening image of two clowns being blown down a scary-looking wind tunnel from outer — or possibly inner — space. Credit designers Wendall K. Harrington (projections) and John Gromada (sound) for this frightening landscape, which is exactly what modern-day life must look like to a clown.
The first extended number, “The Debate,” continues that sense of dislocation by pitching Irwin and Shiner into fierce battle as rival politicians in competition to throw the dirtiest kind of dirt on each other. Things get especially nasty when Irwin is caught passionately kissing a baby (ew!) — and then roughly tossing it back into the audience when he’s through with it.
McKay and the musicians get into the act with songs like “Mother of Pearl,” an aggressively funny anti-feminist ditty “approved by Michelle Bachmann.”
Maybe the best example of how the show’s tricky formula works is the way that Irwin and Shiner handle the nightclub act of a has-been Vegas magician. The routines in “The Magic Act” are so old they have whiskers: pulling a rabbit from a hat, plucking a bouquet of flowers out of thin air, sawing some lady from the audience in half, that sort of thing. The fun is in the execution — the bunny is a lifeless toy, the flowers are fake, and the poor lady is lucky to get out alive.
Shiner does a sublime parody of the magician named Burt, a greasy guy with a pencil moustache and slicked-back hair who thinks he looks sexy in his fluorescent-green dinner jacket. (Great costumes by G.W. Mercier.) Irwin is a heaven-sent foil as Bart’s pretty girl assistant, Barb, all bulging breasts, bouncing curls and toothy smile — and ready to kill Burt with her bare hands for his shameless flirting.
There’s nothing snarky about this kind of satire, because every clown must first master the magic and love the artifice of it before he can presume to fiddle with it. But you also don’t want to turn your back on this show, because it’s loaded with sly insinuations about who we are and how we live today.
Bottom line: This is very shrewd booking for Off Broadway’s Signature, which aims to be the premiere destination site on Ye Olde 42nd Street — after such venerable institutions as Madame Tussaud’s and B.B. King’s, of course.
(Signature Center; 294 seats; $25 top)
Sets & costumes, G.W. Mercier; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, John Gromada; projections, Wendall K. Harrington; music director, Nellie McKay; production stage manager, David H. Lurie. Opened March 4, 2013. Reviewed March 1. Running time: ONE HOUR, 50 MIN.
With Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Nellie McKay. Musicians: McKay, Alexi David, Mike Dobson, Tivon Pennicott, Kenneth Salters.