Two ordinary black hats slowly shuffling offstage is the first indelible image of all wear bowlers. It's not the only one; this 75-minute extravaganza of copious clowning is full of skits, bits, and gags, many of which were ancient even when vaudeville was new, and those hats turn up again and again, floating, flying, and sometimes resting perilously still. They, more than anything else in this new show at the HERE Arts Center, illustrate the imaginative possibilities of the meeting of slapstick and stagecraft.
Like everything else in all wear bowlers, they were conceived by Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford. The duo premiered this current version of the show to great acclaim in Philadelphia last month, and it's obvious from nearly every moment of the finished product that the piece's years of development and careful honing of comedy and character have not been misapplied. This is a richly textured comic evening brimming with old-fashioned fun and frivolity.
And as long as Sobelle and Lyford give themselves over to their central conceit of two Laurel-and-Hardy-like silent-film clowns who magically become the stars of their own stage show, there's no stopping them. The first portion of the evening finds the pair, Earnest (Sobelle) and Wyatt (Lyford), discovering and testing the boundaries of their reality (an "endless road"-type film, credit to Michael Glass) only to accidentally become trapped in a new world, which includes a live audience and a previously unknown sense of theatrical freedom.
They devote no time to tears, though, and immediately adapt to the sights and rhythms of their new milieu: They pester members of the audience, literally stealing their seats and then watching them critically for a few minutes ("Avant garde," Earnest explains); lighthearted competition turns activities like reading a newspaper or eating lunch into unexpectedly complex activities; and props like water jugs and unsteady ladders engulf the theater in waves of barely controlled ridiculousness.
Occasional moments of serenity are also sprinkled throughout the piece: A mysterious third hat morphs into a Magritte-styled invisible man who mimics Earnest and Wyatt; traditional sleight-of-hand games with eggs (often appearing from within the men's clothes or from Wyatt's mouth) slowly coalesce into a thoughtful meditation on the nature of identity and origin. It's almost as if we're being asked which came first, the comic or the pratfall? Director Aleksandra Wolska does her best to address such questions without reducing the hilarity of surrounding events.
However, she can't perk up the show's final scene, a thuddingly unfunny extended ventriloquist act in which the dummy comes to life and takes over the show. The purpose of the bloated scene is to explore the nature of the comedy team and the contributions each person in it makes. But devoting so much time to either performer at such a critical juncture in the evening proves a severe miscalculation that sabotages the subtle - and frequently not-so-subtle - build-up of the preceding hour. The performers' proclivities for profanity also prevent this from being an ideal family show, and dampen a few of what should be surefire laughs.
Still, Sobelle and Lyford are delightful throughout, lovingly evoking the screen clowns of decades past (most noticeably Bert Lahr and Charlie Chaplin) with the same proficiency that they latch onto the more modern tradition practiced by the likes of David Shiner (credited as the show's "vaudeville consultant") and Bill Irwin. They're highly appealing Everymen, articulate of body (and occasionally voice) who are keenly aware of how to zero in every joke or emotion, no matter how outsized.
That includes the use of those eponymous hats, which - as with Randy "Igleu" Glickman's lighting designs - often seem like characters in the show, and are vivid reminders of the antic connection between past and present that Sobelle and Lyford so giddily channel throughout all wear bowlers. You may be tempted to don one yourself and join in the fun, but, as the old saying goes, the hardest part is making it look easy. One must assume that Sobelle and Lyford have been working very, very hard.
all wear bowlers