Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bill Irwin Brings Old-School Vaudeville Charm to "Scapin"

(Bill Irwin, playing Scapin in ACT's production, to Steven Anthony Jones, playing Argante. A paraphrased scene.)

IRWIN: And you don't want to have to hire a lawyer--they'll take all your money! They know what I'm talking about. (To audience) Raise your hand if you're a lawyer. Or if you're married to a lawyer. Or if you work with lawyers--

ME: (in the mezzanine, groaning, afraid that Irwin will make us do something embarrassing) Oh God--I just started a job at a law firm...

IRWIN: (continued) Or if you owe money to a lawyer... Just raise your hand. (To Jones) There! See all those people with their hands up?

JONES: Yes... But what about those young people, way up in the top rows?

IRWIN: The ones in the cheap seats?

JONES: Yes...

IRWIN: They are paralegals, Sir.

(General laughter. I'm sure I laughed harder than anybody. Because I work as a legal assistant now, and I was sitting in the cheap seats. Oh, Bill Irwin, if I didn't love you already, I would have to love you for that.)
So, I'm very glad that, on the spur of the moment, I bought a $10 second-balcony seat to Wednesday night's performance of Scapin. And even happier that, because the show didn't sell well, ACT closed the second balcony and upgraded everyone to the mezzanine. It was well worth it to see Bill Irwin, performing in a Molière play that he adapted and directed to best allow him to display his comic talents.

Irwin just turned 60, but he looks and moves like a man 15 years younger--his energy is incredible. Dressed in baggy pants and tailcoat, he plays the scheming Scapin, a lovable rogue who tricks miserly old men out of their money and tries to help out two silly young couples. But really, Scapin the play is an excuse to see Irwin perform several interpolated comedy routines that aren't in the original script, talk in silly voices/accents, dress in drag, do hat tricks, and frequently break out into rubber-limbed dance moves.

I didn't mind the loose adaptation, because Molière's original Scapin is a fairly predictable comedy that involves some unbelievable coincidences at the end. (In this production, which is full of "meta" jokes, signs that read "An Unbelievable Coincidence!" pop out of the wings at the appropriate moment.) And besides, Irwin is such a terrific performer, full of old-school vaudevillian charm. I see a lot of live theater, but I've never seen anyone like him.

There are several other great comic performances in Scapin. Geoff Hoyle (Irwin's colleague from his Pickle Family Circus days) plays Scapin's miserly master, whom Scapin persuades to hide in a large sack, and then proceeds to wallop with a slapstick. Jud Williford plays Sylvestre, another servant, much more dimwitted than Scapin, but with moments of surprising intelligence. Williford and Irwin do a hilarious routine in Act I where Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant, but is really watching Sylvestre act out a story using charades.

Scapin is still a pretty lightweight play, and the adaptation isn't perfect--there is a chase scene at the end that is motivated only by the desire to have a chase scene; the story is nearly wrapped up and there is really no reason for the characters to run around like crazy. But I'm glad to have seen it for Irwin's performance. I'm only sorry to have discovered him so late in his career!

Scapin runs through October 23 at ACT; and because it doesn't seem to be selling out, you may be able to get a sweet deal on it...

Photo: Bill Irwin as Scapin, Geoff Hoyle as Geronte. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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