Given the relatively newfound popularity of 90-minute plays, double-bills of one-acts have largely gone out of style. What hasn’t faded over hundreds of years of theatre history are works that mix farce and slapstick, with a plethora of self-aware winking thrown in.
Leave it to Theatre for a New Audience to revive both at the same time with Marcel + The Art of Laughter. Though it would be a disservice to Jos Houben and Marcello Magni – the creators and stars of this delightful AND thought-provoking enterprise, a rare combination — to claim you’ve experienced a night like this before.
Most audiences will probably feel like they’re on familiar ground through much of Marcel, which comprises the first half of the evening. Marcello — who else? — plays the title character, an old man who must undergo a series of rigorous exercises overseen by a mysterious doctor (Houben). Though they do converse here and there, much of the story is told primarily through pantomime, allowing Magni to showcase his remarkable physical comedy.
Truth be told, I’m usually not a fan of this sort of theatrical humor. From the Rude Mechanicals’ Act 5 play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream through Michael Frayn’s Noises Off leading all the way up to last Broadway season’s The Play That Goes Wrong, theatre-makers have long mined the absurd lunacy of amateurs putting on a show to garner yucks on yucks on yucks. Yet given the excessive proclivity of this onstage approach to eliciting laughter, I rarely find attempts to do so funny nowadays.
But I defy anyone not to enjoy watching Magni play the classic clown. The simplicity of his movements can’t help but feel refreshing; he rivetingly and riotously milks the sheer act of lighting a cigarette with a persistent cough for maximum drollness. The same holds true for the bare-bones set, whose workmanlike wood emphasizes its stripped down starkness. Unlike the over-the-top contraptions currently on display in The Play That Goes Wrong, Magni need not rely on such spectacle to serve his purposes. The former has the subtlety of a bright red sign demanding that we “LAUGH” “LAUGH” “LAUGH,” with performances from the cast to match; at overly-obvious times, they literally turn their heads to the audience as a sort of cue. Simply put, the only goal of The Play That Goes Wrong is to amuse, which ignores a cardinal rule of comedy: the easiest way not to be funny is to look like you’re trying to be funny.
Yet Magni understands the proper route to take to achieve that same goal: a deep commitment to each moment of his character’s journey. Though he interacts with the audience in the traditional style of commedia dell’arte, Marcello never forsakes the integrity of Marcel’s story in the name of chuckles. The hilarity feels totally organic to the unfolding of his ordeal. We don’t need to be told to laugh because Marcel’s exploits — and especially the way they’re staged — are naturally funny, particularly due to Magni’s advanced age.
Which brings us to what truly separates this from other similar shows: Marcel ultimately proves resonant. By treating the comedy seriously, Magni and Houben communicate rather highbrows ideas through their lowbrow antics. Note, for example, how Marcel is Italian, and often has trouble communicating with the English-speaking doctor. Some of his miming is deliberately open to multiple interpretations, but a shocking amount comes through clearly and even vividly thanks to the precision of his physicality, thereby reaffirming the notion that the body will always be the most universal language. Body language — quite literally the language of the body — is capable of transcending all that separates us, including nationality.
Yet as always in this double-bill, this straightforward message becomes subsequently complicated. Though geriatrics performing these years-defying corporeal feats unavoidably bolsters the chuckles, this fact also allows Marcel to turn into a meditation on the limits of the body over time. Magni will most likely pass the audience’s litmus test, but he fails the doctor’s aforementioned one, leading to a conclusion that ends on a fairly dark — though spiritually hopeful — note. The body might be the only truly global dialect, but of course most people eventually lose functionality of their self, some earlier than others. Yet again, Magni and Houben are aware that the best comedy is tinged with tragedy.
Along with this comedy-tragedy dichotomy, Marcel + The Art of Laughter can also be seen as a rumination on the relationship between the body and mind. If the first act mostly concerns the former, then The Art of Laughter explores what probes the mind to make the body convulse with laughter. It originated as a 60-minute, one-man lecture that Houben would deliver to his students, in which he acts out his points — to much comic effect — to elucidate what the title succinctly describes as the art of laughter. Similar to how Magni’s elderliness is integral to Marcel, The Art of Laughter is steeped in the knowledge that Houben accumulated over the course of his long life. His insights shed new light on Marcel, enlightening the philosophy behind the art just witnessed. It’s a literal masterclass, taught by someone whose spent his career mastering the craft to become the class of his field.
Some may wonder why Houben and Magni didn’t reverse the order of their double-bill, since The Art of Laughter acts as a sort of key to understanding the process behind Marcel. This line of thinking harkens back to a timeless question, one that Tony Kushner touches upon in the respective opening scenes of Angels in America’s two parts: what comes first, action or philosophy? In an age of ardent progressivism, when people feel a desire to behave in a way that shepherds in a new world order even though they may not have the words to create such a world, this query once again adopts newfound relevance.
On its surface, Marcel + The Art of Laughter seems to suggest that evolution should mirror the development of life: we first interact with the world utilizing our bodies, and then we make sense of it with our minds. Comedy works in a similar way: laughing tends to be an instinctual reaction, then only afterwards do some of us think about why we laughed. Yet once again, Houben and Magni throw a wrench in this easy takeaway, for the show actually begins with the former explaining IN WORDS the structure of what’s to come
So what’s the answer? Much like this double-bill, in which the success of each so depends on the other, they’re both equally vital. Marcel + The Art of Laughter reminds us that pondering such ponderous – though essential – questions need not be bereft of comedy…