All Wear Bowlers
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 17, 2005
What is the function of clowns? Are they meant to lift our spirits and take our minds off our troubles? Or are they meant to hold a mirror up to society so that we might see ourselves seeing? The two clowns in all wear bowlers, a hilarious and innovative piece of new vaudevillian theatre, aim to fulfill both of these potential functions.
The idea behind all wear bowlers is quite brilliant: Take Godot's Didi and Gogo, turn them into Laurel and Hardy, and have them walk off the silver screen and find themselves trapped in the reality of the very play that is showing. At first they are shocked by the presence of an audience, so they jump back into the black and white film from which they came. (The caption reads: “There’s people out there!”) For the next ten minutes or so they jump back and forth from screen to stage with such amazing precision that I can only imagine that in addition to performing their respective physical bits they are also counting in their heads, like a musician keeping time, for the exact moment they are to jump seamlessly back onto the screen. I was hooked from this moment on. The show is full of great sight gags but this opening gag is by far the most impressive. Eventually the projector stops, we see the film melt, and they are no longer able to return to their world. They try to escape our world but they are blocked at every escape route so they decide that they must do what they do best—entertain their audience. They interact with the audience, pulling some people on stage and at one point stealing the chairs of two audience members. I’m sure that there is a certain amount of improvisation with the audience at these moments but for the most part the show is a series of very well-rehearsed vaudevillian bits.
The title all wear bowlers is taken from a stage direction in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Its two characters look more like the tramps one might see in a Beckett play than they do clowns, and they certainly express some of the existential struggles with identity and existence for which Beckett is known. The shows creator/performers, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle, have invented a hybrid of vaudeville and existentialism. These two clowns have undergone a rebirth. They have been thrown into our world and they are compelled to entertain us, all the while they are trying to escape our world and return to their own where they know who and where they are. We are bizarre phantoms to them. At one point they actual sit down and watch us watching. They scoff at the audience for watching such avant-garde theatre and all the audience can think to do is laugh at themselves. Later in the show, Lyford and Sobelle re-create Rene Magritte’s famous painting of the headless man with the bowler hat. The headless man is shocked to discover that he has no corporal existence—much like our two clowns who are trapped in this world that is no more real to them than the world of film is real to us.
Lyford and Sobelle are exceptionally skillful performers. There was not a moment in this show that I was not thoroughly engaged in the action. The essence of good clowning is establishing a good character. Lyford and Sobelle are not up there “clowning” so to speak, rather they create characters around which many unexpected events happen. Sobelle plays Ernest who is a bit more brash and yet more sympathetic to the audience’s needs than his counterpart, Lyford’s Wyatt, who has an endearing innocence and goofiness to him. Both Lyford and Sobelle have extraordinary comic timing and each sinks into his respective character so deeply that by the end of the show I felt more like I was in their world than in my own.
There is very little dialogue in the show and there doesn’t need to be. Lyford and Sobelle use their bodies, sleight-of-hand, and sight gags to tell their story. What little dialogue exists is very funny, but there is something about it that didn’t all work for me. Perhaps it is the occasional use of vulgarity, which doesn’t seem to fit into the world of this show. Maybe their characters were trying to appeal to a modern audience.
Sobelle uses a funny voice that he gets a lot of mileage out of, and Lyford is a master at tickling his audience with an expression accompanied by a nonsensical noise. Honestly, I can’t remember when I’ve seen better timing combined with such powerful chemistry on stage. These two performers are an absolute joy to watch.
Their director, Aleksandra Wolska, does an excellent job pulling out the pathos in a show that is on the surface a vaudeville act. Wolska shows us some of the dark and sometimes ethereal undercurrents that flow through all wear bowlers and she establishes an amazing balance between the form and function of the show and its characters. I particularly liked the scene where she turns the actors around and shows us the “magic” behind one of their sight gags.
Technically, the show is as precise as its performers. The lights, designed by Randy “Igloo” Glickman, create great atmosphere and movement; however, there is one point where the audience is blinded by white light in order to create the effect of the clowns jumping off the screen for the first time—possibly there is a more stylized way to produce this effect without blinding the audience. Tara Webb’s costumes are dead-on and James Sugg’s sound design pops up unexpectedly and earns several good laughs. Filmmaker Michael Glass creates a mini masterpiece with his opening shot of the desolate and miserable tree that evokes both Godot and the world of the two clowns.
all wear bowlers is a show that you can enjoy purely for its entertainment value. There is a message that you might pull out of it but you don’t have to. It’s your choice. You can go just to laugh… clowns are funny. But the clowns in this show also help us look at the ambiguity of reality.