Marcel Marceau is the Bob Hope of mime: Everyone thinks he's dead. Fifteen years have passed since his last visit to San Francisco, and it's been even longer since the most recent round of American talk shows to bring him to a living-room audience (in the '70s). But invisibility in America isn't death, no matter how it seems, and Marceau in fact is a spry and healthy 76. He's also -- and this might sound odd to people who know him only as a clownish Frenchman making funny gestures on Merv Griffin -- a genius, and his current stint at Theater on the Square is part of a victory lap at the end of a brilliant career.
Well, more than a victory lap. Marceau tours constantly, like Dylan, and if he revisits a lot of old routines, he also produces new material. Act 1 of every performance is called "Pantomimes of Style" and works in fresh pieces or fresh editions of old ones; Act 2 is devoted to mostly familiar "Pantomimes of Bip," his famous clown. The style pantomimes are exercises raised to high art, gestures and sketches of street characters who become archetypes through Marceau's careful observation. "The Small Cafe" shows a day in the life of a Parisian establishment with a waddling waiter who serves guests, deals with complaints, listens to a drunk, helps with checkers, and works invisibly as a connecting device for the whole busy room. It's a routine reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin (one of Marceau's first idols) that opens and closes with a silent-movie-style waltz, and it's irresistibly funny.
The new material is darker. "Soliloquy of Three Lost Souls," presented in America for the first time on this tour, shows three men on a bench telling and hearing a life story that moves through romance, marriage, kids, poverty, and near-suicide, accompanied by a sad hot trumpet. The identities of the men are obscure, but the music, and a mournful gesture at the end, makes the melancholy point very clear. "Hands," an abstract sculpture of hand movements set to monkish chanting, evokes a cathedral -- grave but delicate, like lacy Gothic architecture -- and an updated version of "The Bird Keeper" ends with a man becoming the same sort of bird he's just set free: a caged and monstrous pigeon. Marceau's expression at the end of this piece is twisted and savage in a way that might not have been possible when he was young: His starkly lit, wrinkled face actually looks like that of a vicious bird.
The longest style pantomime on this tour is "The Seven Deadly Sins," a series of comic illustrations of Envy, Lust, Avarice, and so on. Marceau's simple insight is that these passions manifest themselves as their opposites, so the Laziness piece is called "A Very Busy Day," Greed is "A Charity Dinner;" Avarice is "A Poor Blind Beggar," and so on. Some sketches work less well than others -- "Lust" is just a lascivious painter and his nude model -- but the concept gives a long leash to Marceau's underreported taste for political satire. "A Very Busy Day" shows a meticulous gentleman putting on his suit (pants, suspenders, overcoat, hat) to go out for a newspaper. "A Charity Dinner" shows a pious, rich philanthropist breaking bread and pouring wine in one room, then inhaling greasy meat and punch bowls in another. And Pride, or "The General Plays Chess With His Orderly," shows a swaggering, stiff-legged general in a paper Napoleon hat, ordering his underling out of the room when the game starts to go wrong.
Marceau stands firmly in the tradition of commedia dell'arte Harlequins from the 16th century, and as the only famous performer doing mime onstage in the '50s he single-handedly revived, and updated, the art for the second half of this century. He's inspired scores of annoying imitators, a cluster of mime troupes, both pro- and anti-Marceau, and Michael Jackson (his moonwalk started as Marceau's "Walking Against the Wind"). Two former students, Alexander Neander and Thorsten Rheinhold, serve on this tour as Presenters of Cards, striking poses as Harlequins to introduce the title of each routine. "Pantomimes of Bip" feature Marceau's famous alter ego, named after Dickens' Pip. He wears an outsized sailor's outfit and a crushed opera hat topped with a flower, and owes as much to Chaplin's Little Tramp as he does to Pierrot, the 19th-century Harlequin made famous by Deburau. In "Bip Travels by Sea" he boards a boat and gets sick. The way he smiles, tremulously, at the other passengers, then swells and nearly throws up, over and over, like the swelling of the sea, is so evocative you almost get sick watching him. In "Bip Sells China" he counts a vast inventory of porcelain bowls, ingratiates himself to customers, climbs a tall ladder to reach a bowl, and almost falls. "Bip Commits Suicide" is maybe the funniest piece, because the whole point of Bip is that he's a failure at everything, self-annihilation included.
Marceau relies on carefully edited motions, balletic muscle control, and the simple seduction of not saying a word to lure his audience into figuring out just what the hell he's doing. This old-fashioned mode of "interactivity" should serve as a lesson for Internet types obsessed with that bland and slippery word. Real artistic interactivity gives the audience imaginative work to do, rather than ignoring the artist's mind and intentions to put, say, plot choice in the hands of a reader. It lets the audience help build an illusion. In this sense, of course, "interactivity" is nothing new, but that should only disappoint people with a personal interest in being avant-garde.
Incessant touring is not all Marceau has in common with Bob Dylan. They both also have an eccentrically reverent attitude toward their work. A recent New Yorker piece pointed out that Dylan was no longer the fervent Christian he'd been 20 years ago, but now just considers folk music his "religion" -- the old river system of great and obscure influences, the process of threading a live connection with the dead-and-gone past. Marceau said almost the same thing in an interview here, before his current engagement. "My god is the religion of my art," he said. "I am not an entertainer. Maybe a philosophe, maybe a writer." Well, yes, but let's not take this too seriously, shall we, Marcel? You do entertain, and you are -- happily -- not yet dead.