Signature Theatre Company, that unique Off-Broadway institution that devotes each season to the works — new or revivably used — of a single playwright, always put a premium on the spoken/written word, so eyebrows arched at the news that its 2003-2004 bill of fare would feature plays by Bill Irwin, a mime who has risen to gibberish (like Chaplin in "Modern Times") or Beckett (loquacious Lucky of Waiting for Godot) but who mostly leans on physical comedy.
You can hold it right there, Irwin says mutely, with a flick of his index finger that signals a halt in talk. "I run like the devil from the word mime," he admits, "not because I don't love and appreciate it, but because it has a scary resonance to people. It actually does to me, too. When people call and say, 'Hi. I hear you're doing a season at the Signature Theatre, and I'm a mime. I'd like to talk to you.' Well, maybe we won't have as much stuff in common as you're supposing because the word mime conjures up images of people doing rather 'precious' jokes sometimes." He visually illustrates "precious" by breaking into classic Marcel Marceau, gingerly making his way around an invisible wall.
Then what, pray tell, would the proper nomenclature for Irwin be? "I think the word clown," he offers brightly. "I describe myself as a clown, except when I'm applying for a mortgage or something like that. Then, I'm a writer. I think of myself as an actor slash clown or clown slash actor. And, of course, now I'm a playwright. It's the thing about the tradition of clowning. You're always writing. Clowns are always writing for themselves. It's just part of the deal. You don't get called a writer, but you create your own material."
Basically, he'll be writing his own season ticket: "As to what's absolutely new and what's a rewrite of things that have been in the drawer or in my head, it's hard to say. But I'm fiercely writing at least two-and-a-half, if not three, new pieces for the three production slots. And I'm going to be in, I think, all of them. And I'll co-direct at least the first one."
That would be The Harlequin Studies, Irwin's take on the classic commedia dell'arte character. "Some people know the name, some people don't, but it has a very important place in our psyche," he contends. "It came from the theatre of the 1400's. In my mind, it's some kind of blend of English pantomime and silent film because, in many ways, my way into the Harlequin tradition comes from seeing the silent comics of the twenties — Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd. You can even find some of that in the 'Seinfeld' characters." The cast includes eight actors and two musicians performing the work of Irwin's longtime collaborator, Doug Skinner, who will then reunite with Irwin and Michael O'Connor for the second offering of the Irwin season, The Regard Evening, a revisiting of the opus that introduced them to New York audiences in 1982.
"The three of us, plus Nancy Harrington, really created this piece, which then came to be called a play, to our great surprise, titled The Regard of Flight. We will do a shortened version of the original show, and then, after intermission, we will have an updated look at these same three characters. In a nutshell, it's the actor's nightmare all over again — sort of a postmodern dramatization of my own angst in the middle of the night, waking up in a sweat and trying to figure out what I should do with my theatrical career, such as it is."
The third slot in the season will be filled by Irwin's most ambitious, and divergent, effort: Mr. Fox: A Rumination, based on an actual character who has haunted him for 30 years, George L. Fox (1825-1877), a famous New York performer in the Civil War era.
"It's not going to be a straight historical piece or a bio of this man, but many years later a clown's rumination of what little is known about him. He became immensely successful in pantomime roles and would put on whiteface makeup every day. I, as a young performer, used to put on whiteface makeup every day so I know the complexity of putting that stuff on and scraping it off and how you are transformed by it. It's a mask that allows you to reach people — and, at the same time, it also distances you from people.
"Gradually, Fox lost touch with reality — some people thought because of the white paint. Other people thought it something unrelated to that, like what we now call Alzheimer's. But he was such a star they kept sending him out. He could still kinda do what he did, and he was a draw. It was a grueling tour, and in time they realized this arrangement wasn't going to work, so they sent somebody else out in Fox's costume and makeup, but they still kept him around. When he saw the other guy in his costume and makeup, he went into a rage and sadness that was unbearable. I know there is a potent theatre piece in that life."
Potent theatre is a Bill Irwin specialty, with words or without. In truth, he has grown in language skills since he Broadway-bowed in 5-6-7-8...Dance! and Tony-contended with Largely New York for 1989's Best Play, Actor, Director and Co-Choreographer. In recent times, he replaced Bill Pullman on Broadway in The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? and Bill Murray Off-Broadway in The Guys. One can only wonder what new tricks he'll be carting to the Signature Theatre in his clown car . . .