Arts & Events

The Theater: ‘All Wear Bowlers’ at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday December 01, 2006

A pair of derbies sit alone in the light on stage at Berkeley Rep, visually out of line, but syncopated. After a pause, they skitter off under, it seems, their own power, and a movie projection begins on the white screen upstage from where the hats so coyly posed ... 

Titles scroll, then two figures appear in the branches of a great bare tree, both in derbies. Shades of Godot! But these two-dimensional creatures leave the screen, after wandering down a dusty road, and appear before the audience, covered with stagy chalk dust, as fully-rounded stage clowns Earnest and Wyatt (aka Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford), surprised—even aghast—at the crowd they find themselves before, but whom they cajole, threaten, trample and constantly interact with throughout All Wear Bowlers, directed by Aleksandra Wolska. 

The show proceeds like a Slinky’s ungainly downstairs tumble through an outpouring of routines—and indeed, the clowns themselves credit David Shine for telling them they needed more characterization for their original compendium of bits. They raise holy hell onstage and off, finally literally bringing down the house, otherwise sitting back on a brace of seats stolen from under two spectators to observe the aftermath of their mayhem. 

Gimmicks are standard enough: a ladder, a fire extinguisher, an endless baker’s dozen of eggs (or is it only one or two?), a spoon to tap them with, a handkerchief, the ubiquitous bowlers of the title. When things really get going, it’s an old-fashioned Chinese Fire Drill of clown schtick by two very talented present-day practitioners. 

The problem seems to be with the hook, not the old vaudeville method of getting a ham offstage. Their original instincts more than half-right, the talented team took their preshow development criticism too much to heart, and have tried a little too hard, as the head to an interview in the program put it, at “turning something into nothing.” 

That “nothing” is an homage to Absurdism, which the dramaturg’s notes define by dictionary and link to Existentialism. “Theatre of the Absurd,” the term stuck to Beckett’s plays (as well as Ionesco’s and others, like Genet and Adamov), was coined by Martin Esslin of Stanford (also noted) as an English rough equivalent of “Theatre nouveau,” meaning a recycling of older, often surrealist techniques in postwar drama. 

All Wear Bowlers makes reference, or homage, to that, as well as Buster Keaton’s astonishing film, Sherlock, Jr., in their play with onscreen-offscreen (and onstage) movement—very creative technically, but a little bit awkward, like an absurd fish out of water, with its framing device. Buster returned in triumph to performing with baldly unexplanatory clown routines, which were nonetheless full of character—and recently a local troupe, Mugwumpin, improvised a show out of a nervewracking audition for clowns, red noses the only hook in sight. 

Earnest and Wyatt prove a good team, through composite bits, strings of old chestnuts that start to come alive, like a presumably dead (and overly flexible) body, victim of partner’s manslaughter, who revives as rebellious, ukelele-playing ventriloquist dummy, then morphs into a Wray-o-phage King Kong—or bits of playful stage magic with eggs to mouth, guns from frisked spectators. A quick nod to Magritte works well enough, because it’s quick. But Beckett’s pauses weren’t looking back over the shoulder, or at the audience for a response, for recognition. 

Unfortunately, the archness, not the showmanship gets telegraphed. Two Laurels to somebody else’s (the audience’s?) Hardy, the pair are straitjacketed by the conceit of the show from exhibiting the unabashed freedom, the salutary destructiveness that the silent comedians—as well as the Marx Brothers and recent comics like Dick Shawn—launched into, using the theme as a pretext to take off from, even to tear up—not to exhibit for approval. The original Absurdist plays—like Arthur Adamov’s Ping-Pong, maybe the most relentlessly slapstick-y, show how to deploy the old music hall and burlesque routines and poses to achieve, not quote, profundity. 



Through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St. 647-2900.