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The Regard Evening

Bill Irwin in The Regard Evening
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
What's brilliant about Bill Irwin's "The Regard of Flight" -- which was written in collaboration with Doug Skinner, Michael O'Connor, and Nancy Harrington and is being revived as part of Irwin's Signature Theatre year -- is the neat two-part trick that it pulls off. This is a shining example of the new form of theater that was being shaped in the '70s and '80s, yet it's also a send-up of the pretense associated with self-appointed personages grandiosely determined to create a new theater. The other major factor in the piece's brilliance is its ability to keep a smile on the faces of overjoyed patrons from start to finish.

To create this sort of multi-level entertainment is no easy achievement and may even be more notable given that a reviewer reacts so happily. You see, the mustachio-less but Victorian-melodrama-like villain of the piece is a critic out to analyze the precepts of new theater to death. Furthermore, it's the critic's demise -- brought on by a large pencil to the heart as if a stake driven into a vampire's chest -- that ends the giddy opus. Yet that turn of events didn't stop this scribe from grinning with pleasure until his facial muscles ached. Irwin and colleagues are willing to allow that rubbing out criticism by doing critics in may not be so simple a solution, since the pencil-pushing journalist returns to dog Irwin's character in a new piece by the same four conspirators that serves as a dish of post-intermission mints. Hence The Regard Evening as the title of what's now on view at the Signature Theatre's Peter Norton Space.

The Irwin team juggles a handful of post-modern dramaturgical devices in a show that incorporates, among other things, juggling. Irwin tosses a couple of plates around while also using them as sight gags, at one point to represent a halo and at another point to represent the tray that held John the Baptist's head. The idea behind this comedic folderol -- lit cheerfully by Nancy Schertler and given a perky sound design by Brett R. Jarvis -- seems to be to spoof the academically codified hallmarks of new theater. Irwin literally wears a number of hats during the evening, a few of them cocked, and does marvelous antics with them; he's a master at flipping hats with dexterity and rolling them up one arm and down the other.

The story line, such as it is as it stands ready to have satiric holes punched into it, concerns Irwin's generic clown figure, garbed in red-and-white-striped pajamas with matching night cap and blue-and white-striped stockings. (Catherine Zuber designed the outfit; she also ran up a few baggy pants items for Irwin and, for the critic, a windowpane-plaid suit that bruises the eyes.) The tomfoolery begins as Irwin wakes up in a bed and sets aside the book he's fallen asleep over: "Towards a New Theatre," it's entitled in large black letters.

Immediately, Doug Skinner, in gray suit and bemused expression, alerts Irwin from a stage right piano that it's time to start his show. "Warning," he says, pressing a buzzer at his side. From then on, Irwin -- goofy-faced and puzzled -- free-falls through sequences that require him to dance the boneless jigs that are his specialty while fending off questions that the notepad-wielding critic (Michael O'Connor, in that blaring suit) flings at him. Irwin and the critic circle the entire stage and environs; they disappear into the backless upstage trunk and reappear from it. Meanwhile, Skinner occasionally rises from the piano, stands at an adjacent lectern and delivers mock-serious pronouncements about aspects of new theater, one of his declarations being that proponents of new theater dispense with dated conventions like a proscenium. (Douglas Stein's set includes a fake proscenium with a heavy, red velvet curtain.)

Before Irwin frees himself of his pettifogging stalker, he has run through expression exercises at Skinner's behest, joined Skinner on ukulele to sing a few "home-sickness" ditties, used a trampoline, and been repeatedly run by the critic through lines from King Lear. He's cantilevered forward on joke shoes, been pulled by one leg into the wings, and put his elastic body and rubber face to endless busy work. He has made the words "That proscenium!" howlingly funny and has even fired a pistol, the result of his uncontrolled aim summoning memories of Francois Truffaut's 1960 film Shoot the Pianist. Skinner has wryly supplemented these inspired inanities by carting out a dummy called Eddie and executing a "new ventriloquism" routine.

Michael O'Connor and Bill Irwin in The Regard Evening
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The long and the short of it is that "The Regard of Flight" remains a perfect piece of performance art. (Performance art, of course, was famously coming into its own in the '80s, with Irwin one of its seminal scouts.) This 50-minute-or-so piece sets out to divert and provoke on a number of levels, and it attains every goal that Irwin, Skinner, O'Connor, and Harrington set up for it. They continue the merriment in the sequel even if they don't build on it appreciably; that's to say, they don't make of it the groundbreaking work that is "The Regard of Flight" but, rather, confect a piece of material on the high ground they've already gained for themselves.

In this 30-minute add-on, Irwin's clown, tries to accustom himself to the effects of videos and computers (video design by Dennis Diamond) while again being menaced by the never-say-die critic. The brightest segment has the clown watching himself on a computer screen and eventually introducing a screen-sized version of himself (puppet by Roman Paska) in a manner that has the audience cheering. Skinner, by the way, has distinguished himself during an entr'acte by playing piano and bells and using what look like long, almost toothless combs to play some multiple-octave chords.

While the second-half section of The Regard Evening can't be said to advance Irwin's art -- and make no mistake, he's an artist -- it does present him as the endearing-while-shaking-things-up performer that he hasn't been in recent years and certainly wasn't in The Harlequin Studies, the first entry in this year's Irwin retrospective. Shows like that one have given evidence that the seemingly happy-go-luckless and sometimes deconstructionist clown Irwin created early in his career was turning into an arch, humorless artiste. There's a stretch in The Regard of Flight where the critic drags Samuel Beckett into the argument and Irwin's clown denies any intention to liken himself to that late, great dramatist; yet, some years after introducing "The Regard of Flight," Irwin not only appeared in Mike Nichols's stage production of Waiting for Godot but later starred in a hard-to-sit-through version of Beckett's Texts for Nothing. So it's not just over-reaching critics who invoke the Beckett comparison.

As recently as a few months ago, Irwin's pixylated, delightful clown with iconoclastic notions up his droopy sleeves seemed to have been lost in the mists of his own self-importance. The Regard Evening blissfully suggests that, once again, he regards himself in a sunnier light.


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