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Theatre in Review: Marcel and the Art of Laughter (Theatre for a New Audience)

Marcello Magni, Jos Houben. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

As everybody knows, the best way to kill a joke is to explain it, right? Then how is it that Jos Houben harvests such a bumper crop of laughs in "The Art of Laughter"? Ostensibly a lecture on the theory of comedy, Houben takes some of the most basic physical gags imaginable and breaks them down into their component parts -- and still the effect is delightful. Introducing a bit of business, he points out, in advance, the precise moment that we will respond, and darn if we don't react exactly as he predicted.

This achievement is all the more remarkable since the evening begins with an exercise loaded with exactly the sort of gags that Houben will, after the intermission, analyze with such Descartian rigor. "Marcel," the curtain-raiser, teams Houben up with Marcello Magni, a human fireplug with sad eyes and a drooping mustache, who has arrived for some sort of test, his license having expired. It's never clear what the license is for, unless the government has decided to regulate helium-light tomfoolery, deftly executed.

The simplest activities pose daunting challenges to Magni. He enters, and an attempt at closing his umbrella turns into a struggle that consumes his entire being; he ends up with the object in question pinned between his legs, the ribs and handle popping open alternately, defying he who would tame it. Responding to a list of sporting activities, he expertly mimes each athletic gesture, ending, in non-sequitur fashion, with a perfect imitation of an espresso machine. Forced to change his shoes in front of us, he becomes flushed with modesty, placing a mechanical toy on the opposite side of the stage to distract our attention. At one point, for no particular reason, he tears a piece of newspaper, fashions it into an impromptu collar and hat, and transforms himself a pierrot figure. If anything, the gesture is redundant; by this point, it is obvious that Magni is a clown in the classic tradition.

Despite such antic activities, much of "Marcel" is rooted in the comedy of futility. An attempt at furtively lighting a cigarette begins with matches sprayed all over the floor and climaxes in a series of failures in which Magni keeps blowing out the match. A curved, ascending set piece resides at center stage, at first covered with an enormous cloth: Magni gets tangled up in the fabric, looking for a second like a dancer performing Martha Graham's "Lamentation." He also knocks off part of the structure's cladding, guiltily covering up the evidence with his sport jacket, and endures several collisions with this clearly immovable object. In the pearliest sequence, he faces his final test, in which he is challenged to maintain a moment of silence. Time after time, Magni enters, a finger pressed to his lips like an angry librarian, urging us all to take part in the quietude. Without fail, something -- a giggle, a cough, a rustle -- from the audience sends him, apoplectic, back to square one. The myth of Sisyphus has never been so hilarious.

Houben, a blonde beanpole in a lab coat, presides over the spurious tests in "Marcel." He appears solo in "The Art of Laughter," presenting his scientific findings regarding the physics of humor. Demonstrating the different stances people assume while walking, he reshapes himself into one cartoon form after another. He then incorporates a stumble -- one of the simplest bits of business imaginable -- and we laugh. He adds a take to the stumble. Again, we laugh. If one take is funny, why not add another? He does so -- and bingo, the laugh is doubled.

The sheer skill with which Houben announces a gag, predicts the placement of the laugh, and lands it, is a wonder to behold. As he notes, another's loss of dignity is what really delights us. Cutting to the heart of the matter, he adds "The misery and pain of others is funny. Cruelty is funny." Remarkably, "The Art of Laughter" allows us to revel in that fact without undue malice. Of course, he observes other types of behavior, at one point imitating a pope so regal that he is, essentially, immobile, a single wrist agile enough to allow him to wave at the distant faithful. Moving to the animal kingdom, he gives us his impressions of a dog, a cow, and a fish. These are full-body creations, although the faces -- the fish is defined by sunken cheeks and a glassy-eyed hostile stare -- are especially priceless. Moving into the realm of the surreal, he gives us his impersonations of different cheeses, illuminating for us the differences between, say, a camembert and a mild cheddar. Believe me, they are profound.

One reason the entire evening, a coproduction with C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord of Paris, works so well is that it is a distillation of Magni and Houben's styles. Just as Oria Puppo's set design and Philippe Vialatte's lighting are about as basic as the professional theatre gets, the performances are elegantly minimal; there isn't a single excess gesture. Even when the action turns relatively frantic, you feel that both are totally in control -- almost relaxed -- as they practice their own personal brand of mayhem. "Marcel" and "The Art of Laughter" offer something very rare -- humor in its purest form, presented with no small intelligence and cockeyed goodwill. It is all but guaranteed to give you a lift. -- David Barbour

(2 November 2017)

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