Breaking Out of the Box

Mime jokes have their moments (think Robin Williams as a sadistic mime teacher in Shakes the Clown), but the famous French mime Marcel Marceau got the last laugh in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie with the film's only speaking part. It was an ironic bit of casting since Marceau, who grew up idolizing film stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, is funnier in silence than many comics are at top volume. He spent decades perfecting that talent and, at 76, is still considered a mime nonpareil, as well as a de facto ambassador of French goodwill. In his first American tour, circa 1955, Marceau endeared himself to American audiences with his alter ego, Bip, a quixotic hobo who tames lions and chases butterflies with the stouthearted abandon of a child.

As Marceau matured, so did his art, in the best tragicomic Chaplin tradition, reflecting his disparate experiences as a World War II soldier and globe-hopping performer through his limber frame and remarkably expressive face. Signature pieces like The Cage, The Mask Maker, and Youth, Maturity, Old Age, and Death are still used as models for would-be mimes; as he did in a sold-out New York run earlier this year, Marceau will perform some of these along with the new adventures of Bip, who tries his hand at seafaring and matchmaking. The show opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday (and runs through Aug. 8) at Theater on the Square, 450 Post (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $25-45; call 433-9500.

— Heather Wisner

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