There are several hundred thousand people in New York who will tell you the best play on Broadway is not a play, has no spoken lines and is never quite the same from one night or one matinee to the next. These are the people who have flocked like addicts to Fool Moon, the show that has become something of an annual event these past three years, wholly consisting of two inspired non-talkers named Bill Irwin and David Shiner. This time they are back with us at the Brooks Atkinson.
Irwin is the moon-faced one who exudes bumbling good will in many guises, except when, as a lecherous floor-scraping maitre d’, he tries to steal Shiner’s tin-lizzie date out from under Shiner’s nose or chair. Shiner is the darkly handsome hatchet-faced one who gives that girl a ride in his (invisible) tin-lizzie -- one or another pretty girl, a new one each time, whom he’s picked out of the audience to take part in the dumb-play. You’d be surprised how good some of them are, or how hilarious.
It is also Shiner who sulphurously opens the show by climbing in over the spectators in the first row, yanking away a fur coat here or there in the process; and who with utter brilliance and no little theatrical daring closes it as director of a melodramatic take in a silent-era movie with all the participants -- wife, lover, vengeful husband, clapboard guy -- again drafted out of the audience.
It was when the Cirque du Soleil was in New York in 1991 that the greatly gifted Bill Irwin, winner of a MacArthur “genius” Award, had come around after the performance to express his appreciation of Shiner’s talent in that Montreal charivari. Over lunch, they talked about clowns and clowning -- and then, by happenstance, some months later were thrown together to improvise something funny on the New Mexico set of the Sam Shepard film "Silent Tongues." Eight minutes of their ten-minute whatzit ended up on the cutting-room floor. "It’s interesting," said David Shiner dryly a few weeks ago, as the latest edition of Shiner & Irwin was heading to N.Y., "that Fool Moon was born on the deserts of New Mexico."
The current show is very much the prescription as before, "except it’s much tighter and more fluid than it ever was." Last time in New York, playwright John Guare came backstage one night to be introduced to Shiner. "You work without a net," said the awe- struck Guare.
"Well," Shiner said, when reminded of Guare’s remark, "that’s the only way you can work for that excitement, that spontaneity, that tension -- when it becomes exciting for everybody, myself included. Because often I don’t know what’s going to happen."
If David Shiner makes the improvisational so exciting -- a shifting roll of the dice every night within Fool Moon’s overall structure -- it may have something to do with Francis Shiner, the truckdriver who decided to change his own life in 1963, when son David was ten.
"He moved us out west" -- from Boston, where David was born -- "in a semi-trailer with a ’53 Plymouth tied down in the back with all the furniture and us eight kids." Francis Shiner became a computer programmer, and David and his seven siblings and their mom and pop bounced back and forth between Colorado, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Virginia is where the future co-Fool went to high school and to Christopher Newport College, and he was just starting to work as a mime on the streets of Boulder, Colorado, in 1978, "when some artists came along and told me how great the streets of Paris were." The streets of Paris and elsewhere in France are where Shiner pursued his, shall we say, interactive craft for the next three years, and for the half-dozen after that, Germany.
Finally, the star who would one day shine in the Cirque du Soleil landed a job with Germany’s Circus Roncalli. In the same company in 1984 Berlin was a girl named Micaela Wengenroth -- an equestrienne whom he would marry and who today conducts classes in what’s called "high-school dressage," teaching horses to gallop and dance in a certain way. When Shiner goes home after a four-month spell with Fool Moon, it’s to their house in Utting, a Bavarian village near a lake tucked between the Austrian and German Alps.
A four-month run "is all you can take of this show," says Shiner, meaning all you can take as a performer, because some spectators could gladly go back for 40 months. "After four months, eight shows a week, you get so wired up." (He and Irwin are here now for a stand through Jan. 3.) Irwin and Shiner call the last number on the bill simply "The Cinema" -- the one with the four recruits from the audience, performing a corny, flamboyant silent-screen episode under Shiner’s equally silent but highly gesticulative direction.
"It started years ago as a sort of improvisational piece on the streets of Paris," says Shiner, "and then I did it with the Cirque du Soleil in 1990. I don’t know why, but I never thought I could bring it into the theatre. ‘Well, in theatah you don’t bring people up onstage.’ The first time we did it on Broadway -- Broadway! That word! The legitimate stage! -- I was terrified.” Could be. But he doesn’t look terrified.