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Mr. Fox: A Rumination

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

As the subject of the current Signature Theatre season, Bill Irwin has had the opportunity to redefine his position as one of the theatre's finest reigning clowns. While Irwin as a performer and character was central to the success of both The Harlequin Studies and The Regard Evening, with the final show in his season, Irwin has someone else in mind.

That would be George L. Fox, the creator of the Humpty Dumpty pantomime, one of the most famous and successful in post-Civil War New York, and the man (known as "the American Grimaldi") who redefined clowning in the United States. He's a perfect subject for Irwin, and it's easy to see how Fox's colorful life and tragic downfall could inspire him to write Mr. Fox: A Rumination.

But the show, which just opened at the Peter Norton Space, does not land as effortlessly as Irwin's previous two Signature ventures did. Admittedly, it's broader in scope and more daring, but it's also the closest to a traditional play, with much of its physical comedy relegated to occasional plot-related interludes.

It's also not intended to faithfully depict Fox's life, but rather recreate for today's audiences what made him and his work noteworthy. Irwin focuses not only on Fox's performance style, but on the effect he had on subsequent performers, from those who would follow in his footsteps (like Irwin) to those who would walk through the doors he helped open (he openly utilized black performers in his acts). The play, which is smoothly directed by James Houghton, is at its best when Irwin is ruminating on these and related subjects.

Whether his speculations about the contents of Fox's pantomimes are correct, Irwin is so persuasive in and dedicated to his approach that every move and every facial gesture feel nothing less than authentic. The sets (Christine Jones), lights (James Vermeulen), and costumes (Elizabeth Caitlin Ward) help create Fox's world, but Irwin's contributions are the source of the play's greatest conjuring power.

It's odd, then, that the play surrounding these bits is disturbingly conventional: Though his pantomimes are a great popular success, Fox the artist longs for more; poor business decisions and encounters with manipulative managers land Fox severely in debt, and with a deteriorating family life; he begins to develop a mental impairment that slowly encroaches on his work; and he dies in despair and artistically unfulfilled.

Hasn't Irwin spent much of his career reacting against theatre just like this? Irwin manages to provoke with these familiar ideas - the man who's playing in a pantomime but longs to do Serious Theatre, or who hides behind his white makeup because facing the world without it is too trying - but has difficulty making these are well-worn subjects seem relevant and new. Whenever one of the pantomimes or a related comic sequence begins, however, Irwin's freshness and originality again shine through.

Irwin has a strong ensemble to assist him. Marc Damon Johnson gives a nice performance as Fox's collaborator, George Topack, primarily used to show how Fox's work reflected the changing racial attitudes of show business (Topack appears wearing blackface and a gorilla costume at different points). Geoff Hoyle is entertaining as Fox's brother, Charlie; Bianca Amato nicely plays the women populating Fox's life and work; and Richard Poe, Peter Maloney, and Jason Butler Harner do well in a number of roles, particularly the managers Fox battles throughout the play.

Finally, there's Irwin, who gives a performance as brilliant here as any you're likely to see from him: he finds the tragedy in the role's humor, the comedy in each shattering event Fox must endure, and he ably depicts Fox as a man of unique gifts. Irwin is capable of beautifully connecting with the role and the audience, whether in the pantomimes, an impromptu brainstorming session between Fox and his brother, or at the play's end when Fox's body seems to betray him to greater and greater degrees before your very eyes.

It's also at the end of the play that Fox and Irwin become even more inseparable; from the beginning, Irwin attempts to blur the lines between what was and what might have been, and in the touching conclusion of Mr. Fox: A Rumination, he succeeds admirably. One can't help but realize the strong impact both men have had on the theatre, but, despite how well their personalities combine, one also can't help but wish the play bringing the men together cut just a bit deeper.

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Signature Theatre Company
Mr. Fox: A Rumination
Through May 16
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
Signature's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.244.7529