The Signature Theatre Company's decision to base its season on the work of star clown Bill Irwin rather than a more traditional playwright is quickly turning into one of the most brilliant creative coups to hit Off-Broadway in years. If focusing on communication more through actions than words originally seemed like a risible gimmick, Irwin is using his unbridled creativity to prove it anything but.
The Regard Evening, which just opened at Peter Norton Space, trumps Irwin's previous Signature entry The Harlequin Studies by delving even deeper into pure theatricality and creating something funnier and more memorable. A combination of Irwin's 1987 short play "The Regard of Flight" (originally paired with "The Clown Bagatelles") and a newly devised sequel, this show tracks both Irwin's evolution as an artist and the progression (or perhaps just perception) of the "New Theatre" Irwin himself was interested in helping develop.
So, if the first act feels familiar, that's by design, though Irwin and his cast mates (both of whom were also in the 1987 production and helped create the show with the assistance of Nancy Harrington) have a talented way of making everything seem fresh. "The Regard of Flight" finds Irwin caught between the show's Musical Director (Doug Skinner), who is intent on explaining each of the vaudeville and theatrical conventions he and Irwin spend much of the act breaking down, and the relentless Critic and Director (both played by Michael O'Connor) bent on keeping Irwin and Skinner's work within previously established and more readily accessible forms.
The entire act is essentially one continuous chase scene, in which Irwin attempts to maintain the integrity of his new ideas while being doggedly pursued by the old. A trampoline built into the stage (the scenic design is by Douglas Stein), a bottomless trunk of costumes (devised, as all here are, by Catherine Zuber), doors that appear and disappear in the stage walls when necessary, and even an apparently carnivorous curtain act alternately as aids in his escape from conventional thinking and barriers on the path to creating something more wholly new.
After intermission, "In the Same Regard" finds the characters struggling to survive in today's world. Some devices (like the trampoline) they once considered fresh now seem commonplace, while others (cell phones, the Internet, etc.) should provide helpful assistance but often only make things harder. If less manically humorous than the first act, the second feels like an organic extension of its story, with Irwin and Skinner still attempting to make their peace with the Director and Critic while maintaining their artistic integrity. The second act is even heavier on discovery and experimentation, despite being more oblique in its construction; just as "The Regard of Flight" breaks down Old Theatre into its component elements, so does "In the Same Regard" examine the components of theatre today, while exploring how every element can - and must - work in harmony.
Irwin's body, so malleable it often seems as if it were made entirely of rubber, is the centerpiece of the production, and Irwin's raucous physical stunts provide the season with some of its headiest and most memorable visual delights. If Skinner and O'Connor don't get quite the same opportunities at center stage, their appeal and influence on the production is in no way diminished; each of the three actors feeds off the other two, and the play would be lesser if even one were missing. For Skinner and O'Connor's part, they provide needed contrast to Irwin, calming and exciting influences, though it's occasionally difficult to be sure which is which at any given moment.
At the end of the first act, my jaw ached from more laughing and smiling than I've experienced in one concentrated period at the theatre in quite a while; the pain had only just begun to subside when the second act concluded. Yet while Irwin's show is as full of goodwill and hilarity as any you're likely to find, there's serious artistry on display, and the message of Irwin and his collaborators must not be easily dismissed. They want the audience to expand their conceptions of what theatre is, where it has come from, and where it's going; they want the audience to not only understand what theatre is (or can be) for themselves, but for others as well.
That's less difficult than it may sound. Whatever one's definition of "good theatre" is, The Regard Evening will almost certainly be it.
Signature Theatre Company