2 clowns at A.C.T. entice laughs via old hats, new bits

Bill Irwin (in drag) and David Shiner stylishly exaggerate the norm in “The Magic Act,” one of the segments of “Old Hats.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bill Irwin (left) and David Shiner comically confront each other in a segment of “Old Hats.” Photo by Kevin Berne.

 Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆

“Fool Moon,” a Tony Award-winning show with Bill Irwin and David Shiner clowning up a comedic storm, made me blissfully happy.

So I impatiently waited for an encore  — for 16 years.

Finally, the baggy-pants pair is back, in a mostly non-verbal collaboration at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, “Old Hats.”

Though Irwin and Shiner are no longer chronologically young (they might be called middle-aged if they plan to live to 120), their bodies seem as rubbery, as lissome and acrobatic as ever.

And their inventiveness is nearly as agile.

They easily, and almost continuously, induce laughter with old-style chapeaus and new-style bits.

With a slew of newfangled technology tossed in.

This production, in conjunction with New York’s Signature Theatre, is quite different from their first go-‘round: Original musical interludes (heavy on country rock) by singer-songwriter-pianist Shaina Taub separate, and then overlap with, the twosome’s individual and dual segments.

Irwin and Shiner are, in effect, theatrical Renaissance Men.

They create hilarious comedy and prickly poignancy, they invent silent but sympathetic characters, they dance and play instruments and sing, they improvise and they inveigle audience members to play along fully with slapstick shtick.

I saw Pickle Family Circus co-founder Irwin not that long ago at the San Francisco Opera House, where he stole the show in a presentation of “Showboat.” I’d also thoroughly enjoyed his work in A.C.T.’s “Endgame” in 2012.

As for Shiner, a grad of Cirque du Soleil, he also starred as The Cat in the Hat in Broadway’s “Seussical: The Musical.”

Both are masters at the characters they assume — Irwin the good-natured schlub, Shiner the darker, more aggressive onstage persona.

Their 105-minute show is somewhat uneven, but its high points are extraordinary.

• Such as “Mr. Business,” spotlighting Irwin’s exquisitely timed playfulness with his own images on a tablet (my writing about it can’t compare to my joy watching it).

• Such as Shiner’s goading and mimicking four audience members in an extended bit about filming a mute old-fashioned Western, the side-splittingly funny “Cowboy Cinema.”

• Such as the opening number, “Old Hats,” which features projections that envelop the two spotlight-craving clowns as they flee an explosion in space.

• Such as “The Encounter,” with two guys waiting for a train initially badgering each other in highly amusing ways, then finding commonality via the sharing of pills.

• Such as an excursion into the sublime, similar to a lightning-fast riff by the late Robin Williams, when they break their silence barrier and convulsively swap lines from “Who’s on First” and “Over the Rainbow,” with a couple of quotes from Shakespeare added to the mix.

Alas, not everything is a 10.

Shiner’s “Hobo Puppet Waltz,” a solo set piece that finds a tramp getting more and more depressed as he jerks a predicable series of broken items from a trash bin can’t be saved by his imaginative creation of a woman companion from a white fabric.

And “The Debate,” a sketch about a political face-off, is filled with all-too-familiar lowbrow humor and standard pot shots.

But, overall, director Tina Landau ensured that “Old Hats” was an evening’s entertainment that kept me smiling.

And she proved that old clowns never die — they just slip into baggier pants.

“Old Hats” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through Oct. 12. Performances Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 or 8 p.m.; matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $120. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.


About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →