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all wear bowlers
Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle

By Beth Herstein

Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle
Take two clowns in bowler hats and place them on an unidentified but archetypal road in the middle of a silent movie. Toss them abruptly out of the screen, let them play with the novelty of that for a while. Then, when the clowns are feeling amused and complacent, let them in on some unsettling secrets: The audience they've been chuckling at, the one that was watching the film, can see them, and in fact is watching them. And the clowns themselves are in a show —they are the show —and they can't escape it, even to reenter the screen from which they so recently emerged. Without a script, without so much as a legible map, they remain on the stage in utter confusion and sometimes terror, reenacting classic slapstick routines and magic tricks —because, after all, that is who and what they are.

That is the premise of all wear bowlers, which is currently enjoying a return engagement at Soho's HERE Arts Center. The show may sound dark; in fact, it is dark. The undercurrent of existential angst has its ebbs and flows, but remains palpable throughout the piece. At the same time, however, it is very funny. The most palpable audience reaction is the laughter.

bowlers is the brainchild of Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle, and it has had a long and "effortful" genesis, as Sobelle puts it. In 2000, while he was in the MFA program in theater at the University of California, San Diego, Lyford workshopped a piece based on the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. The piece incorporated not only the famous duo's physical comedy but referenced the plays of Samuel Beckett and ideas about the construction of identity.

After graduation, Lyford went to New York, where he became part of the actors collective The Civilians and also performed with numerous theater companies. In addition, he worked with groups outside of New York City —including Philadelphia's well-respected Pig Iron Theater, which was co-founded by Lyford's wife, Suli Holum. In 2001, Lyford met and befriended Sobelle, a Pig Iron company member. Like many of his colleagues there, Sobelle had studied theater and movement with renowned performer and teacher Jacques Lecoq, at L'Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Prior to that, he'd majored in literature and theater at Stanford University. Through his studies, he was drawn to both the high art of works like Beckett 's Waiting for Godot and the low art sitcom of the 1930s, with its undeniable existential depths. He also had a taste for magic; Sobelle, an accomplished magician, has performed magic tricks since he was a child.

Before long Lyford and Sobelle began their collaboration, using ideas from Lyford's earlier piece but also expanding upon them considerably. bowlers developed along two tracks, as Sobelle and Lyford describe it. The pair had long discussions about the nature of identity and the philosophical underpinnings of their work. "Likewise, we'd just fuck around a lot," says Sobelle - improvising, cracking each other up, and keeping themselves from growing self important about their project. Ultimately, these through lines "just blended in a way." They found routines, "bits that made us laugh," and slowly built up a collection of usable work. The pair had about one-third of the work assembled when they began their earliest performances of bowlers together. The other two-thirds, they estimate, were "borne out of panic," Lyford states, after they'd already gone onstage with their show.

From early in their work together, they used the bowler hat as the framing device. "We didn't know exactly what to do with the image, but we knew we wanted to work with it. There's such resonance to it," says Sobelle. They also looked to early physical comedians: Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the three Stooges, silent stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. "All those clowns resonated something about the times," says Lyford. Their goal was to plumb the work of these comedians for both the comedy and the depth.

Another inspiration was the BBC faux-documentary The Office, which takes clowning and puts it into a context particularly contemporary. "There's an anxiety and a lost quality to the characters" which appealed to them, says Sobelle. The Office also reflects the Heisenberg Principle: "the act of observing alters the reality being observed." The actors illustrate this principle in the context of bowlers, they say: "The two clowns are part of something they hadn't realized they were a part of," Sobelle explains. The anxiety comes from this realization, along with the fact that they are "trapped in a clown show" and are forced, by their nature, to do old clown bits, such as the spit take ballet, all of which have been done before. "Hopefully, though, we're presenting the bits in ways that are fresh and unique." Lyford adds, "Slapstick is the pallette we use to tell the story."

The magic in bowlers is also crucial, Sobelle and Lyford stress. In the context of the show, magic serves as a metaphor for theater itself. In magic as in theater, "We all know it's an illusion, and yet we watch it and believe it." Consistent with this idea, at one point in bowlers Sobelle performs a trick from an angle that simultaneously gives it away.

Along the road to the show's fruition, Lyford and Sobelle picked up some valuable collaborators. They credit filmmaker Michael Glass with helping them develop the ingenious film segments used at the beginning of the piece, in which the two slip into and out of the silver screen. His contribution was critical because "making the film was part of the development of the characters," explains Sobelle. In addition, Lyford says, Glass served as a quasi-director and an outside eye.

Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle
They did not get an actual director until November 2004, when Aleksandra Wolska went to work with them on bowlers. Structure has always been a battle for them, in part because they constantly pull the rug out from under their own characters. Once Wolska was there, "she forced us to structure our ideas, to identify the clear direction of the piece," says Lyford, and, from that point on, they developed their piece accordingly.

Everyone else came in later on in the process: James Sugg, who adapted the sound design Lyford developed early on; Randy Glickman, who handles the stage lighting; Garth Patil, film producer; and Tara Webb, who designed the costumes. In addition, David Shiner, credited as the show's "vaudeville mentor," consulted with them in connection with a grant awarded to Sobelle. According to Sobelle, Shiner instilled in them "a certain value for the clown work. More than anything else, he raised the bar of performance." Although Shiner didn't create any of the material, Sobelle adds, he helped the actors find the truth in their characters, and in that sense helped them get to "the soul and core of the project."

The final and equally critical performer in bowlers is the audience. During the show, the actors break through the illusion of the fourth wall. They address and respond to the audience, and they even pull one of them onto the stage early on in the piece. Although the overall structure of the show is set beforehand, the audience involvement adds nuance and a bit of unpredictability. In addition, when the audience's energy level is high, it adds a measure of energy to the show itself.

As for the ending of bowlers, the actors have kept it deliberately ambiguous. Lyford initially wanted it to be unequivocally dark, and some of the audience members see it that way. Others latch onto the continued comradeship of the characters and view the work as more optimistic. "I have a hunch that those people who view the piece as optimistic do so because there's such great cooperation between us as actors," says Sobelle. "By virtue of that, it's an enjoyable experience," despite the darker underpinnings.

The show is not only enjoyable but a huge success. It won acclaim in Philadelphia, where 1812 productions gave them their first produced run —and where, according to the pair, they were able to refine the piece enormously before bringing it to New York. In New York, bowlers regularly fills up the house at HERE. The show just received a Drama Desk nomination in the Unique Theatrical Experience category. It has also received critical accolades. The New York Times recently referred to it as "easily the most original and funny show this year." And, in the headline for its review of the show in February, The New York Sun described it as "the city's funniest show."

The reviews regularly mention the many references: Beckett, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Magritte and others. "We kind of started it," Lyford admits. They described the play in similar terms in their press releases to give people an idea of what to expect. Accordingly, the comments do not bother Lyford and Sobelle at all. On the contrary, they wear their influences proudly, and as conspicuously as they wear their bowler hats. As much as anything else, all wear bowlers is an homage and a nod to their philosophic and comedic forebears.

At the end of the month bowlers completes its New York run and will not be extended because both the space and the actors have other commitments. bowlers itself is not over, however. In August, the show will be presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; in September, it will be performed at Princeton as part of a symposium on the use of magic in theater; and, also in September, Sobelle and Lyford will travel to Dublin to participate in the Dublin Fringe Festival. They both remain involved with other theater companies, such as The Civilians and Pig Iron, as well. At the same time, they've enjoyed their extremely fruitful collaboration and their friendship. They are co-artistic directors of rainpan 43, and they're currently developing ideas for future collaborations. In the meantime, they are relishing the opportunities that the show's success has wrought, and enjoying the audiences that enjoy them nightly.

all wear bowlers
Through May 28
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, one block below Spring Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444

Photos: Jacques-Jean Tiziou

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