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Flash Flashback 2, 9-27: Marcel Marceau's World
Exercising the Imagination

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Review was first posted November 14, 2000. Marcel Marceau passed away Saturday in Paris at the age of 84. To read Paul Ben-Itzak's tribute, click here.)

The thing about the true old masters is that they don't simply rest on their laurels, but continue to demonstrate the risk-taking proclivities by which they made their names initially. Marcel Marceau, who closed a 14-show solo run at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse Sunday, is a case in point.

Marceau, whose name had become synonymous with mime by the 1960s, could have just trotted out a few of his greatest hits, and the fans who turned out would have been sated. His character Bip, for example, has long held the mantle originally held by Chaplin as the prototypical tragi-comic clown; whether the star of a wondering circus, or a tailor in love with his imagined blind date, his travails inevitably follow a certain formula: open to the world at first, his eyebrows flaring (ooh la la!), until the world collapses on his shoulders, and they slump, but not for long, as he jauntily walks off into the horizon, ready for the next adventure. I for one would have been content for these simple reminders of how the world is a treasure box of shiny jewels that can also whop you over the head with its bathos. Marceau, however, pushed beyond this -- into the truly horrifying.

Looking at the program and seeing a section called "The Eater of Hearts: A Cruel Tale," I assumed the reference was metaphorical. But, no, this tale was literally and graphically about an eater of hearts. In somber lighting (by Didier Girard) that casts shadows and daggers over his face and suddenly makes the nearly 80-year-old, heretofore even frail looking clown appear dangerous and ominous and virile, the eater of hearts waits voraciously on a street corner. Then, like a lizard darting out its tongue for a fly, he reaches out those long, long, Plastic Man arms, and in what initially looks like a gesture of welcoming embrace, hugs a passerby. They dance; they struggle; the passerby succumbs. In one killing, Marceau turns his back and uses those long arms, wrapped around his shoulders, to mime his victim, hugging him at first and then struggling as she realizes she's in a death clasp, beating his back, until a hand juts up, and then goes limp.

But she is full front as he then takes his hands, pulls her chest apart at each side, and reaches in for the heart. Once extracted, as he holds it up before him like a prize that is also a delicacy, we know it's still beating by the way his thumbs retract on either side. We know it's a delicacy -- to him -- by the way his fingers flutter as it slides down his throat.

It gets worse! The eater of hearts is soon at the periphery of a carousel where he charms two children to join him. They tug at either arm. They get out of hand. He shakes them. He brandishes a knife, and stabs one, cleanly and viscously. By the way his hands hold the child, and then slump, we know the child has succumbed. He rips the heart out and relishes it, swallowing it in the same savoring manner as before. But then there is a moment of humanity. He seems to see the dead child, and truly become aware of this young being. He shakes the body, trying in vain to awaken it. There is only one course; turned fully to us, he grandly, without hesitation, rips his own heart out. The thumbs rise up and down from the joints. He shoves the heart into the child's cavity, and starts to push, trying to revive him. By his arms, we see the child rise. He is warmed. He follows the child back to the carousel, and rests his head on the rail, watching him, with relief and melancholy joy and love -- miraculously living on, without a heart, to see the miracle he has performed and which indicates that he has in fact, regained his heart -- before softly clutching his own chest, and slumping over the rail.

In the short term, Marceau instantly won my heart with this piece because it scared the heretofore constantly chattering terrible two behind me to start wailing so that he and his mom left the theater, never to return. It also, more importantly, was a reminder of the power of mime, and how fully Marceau exploits it -- with no limits. This is not clowning. It is theater. Far from being limited by wordlessness, Marceau proves again how mime can expand the possibilities of what an actor-dancer can suggest on stage. In a horror movie, it's hard to believe the heart is real, because we see it and know it must be a prop. In mime, Marceau gives us just enough of a simple suggestion so that we can complete the horror with our own imaginations.

He is one actor, but, aided only by some occasional music (and immaculate, flawless scene-setters Gyongyi Biro and Alexander Neander) to help establish the mood, he builds whole worlds. In "Bip Travels by Train," well, we wouldn't have needed to know ahead of time from the program that he is on a train. We see it by the way Marceau bobs and weaves as he stumbles along the corridor, in search of an available bathroom. We see it by the way he lifts his luggage onto a high shelf, only to have it fall into his arms again. We see it by the bemusement in his face when he tries to feed himself, only to have a sudden jolt in the train misdirect the fork to his neighbor's mouth. The narrow corridors and the compartment quarters that are European trains -- it's all there.

Watching Marceau is what listening to radio dramas is like, in a way. He's not just exercising his imagination, but ours as well.


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