Forget what you think you may know about clowns, or at least the Ringling Brothers variety (not that there’s anything wrong with a dozen or so of them pouring out of a car in a three-ring circus). Bill Irwin and David Shiner return to the Signature Theatre in a revival of their 2013 hit, Old Hats, which uses clowning and physical theater as a vehicle for social commentary as well as a belly full of laughs.
Encouraged by Signature’s founding artistic director James Houghton, the pair began workshopping vignettes and shortly thereafter director Tina Landau was brought in to help give the piece cohesion and integrate all of the technical elements. The result—even the second time around—is a joyous and heartfelt romp through the human condition. The eight scenes are interspersed with original music by Shaina Taub (replacing Nellie McKay from the original production).
Some scenes are, perhaps, even more timely this time around, such as “The Debate,” which hilariously captures the depths to which candidates will go to engage voters. Standing at podiums with approval ratings measured behind them, each tries to outdo the other, touching upon hot topics such as LGBT rights. Of course, in true clowning fashion, this is done without a word.
Other successful scenes include “The Magic Act,” with Shiner as the magician and Irwin in drag as his assistant/wife. They’re the kind of pair you’d expect to see at a failing Atlantic City casino, and as they fumble through a series of meager tricks, things only get worse, including sawing an audience member in half. Swapping high heels for clown shoes, Irwin later returns as “The Waiter” and serves up plenty of laughs along with a strand of spaghetti that spans the width of the stage. Shiner also has his time in the spotlight in “Cowboy Cinema,” where he casts audience members in the film and as director, puts them through the ringer.
Other bits throughout showcase the pair’s immense talents, including tap dancing, singing, and playing a variety of musical instruments. Don’t be fooled by the ease of these masters as you witness the culmination of generations of clowning tradition. Taub is a charming foil to the pair, delivering a whimsical collection of songs throughout and lyrics that underscore the evening’s themes, such as this passage from “Let’s Dream”:
Let’s burst with joy at the seam
We make a marvelous team so why not take the sky
With Irwin and Shiner at the helm, Old Hats is a dream not miss.
Signature Theatre Company
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 2