Like the great comedy teams, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni are a study in contrasts. The Belgian Mr. Houben is tall, animated and relies on breezy patter. The Italian Mr. Magni is short, often dour and mostly silent. They have collaborated with Peter Brook at his Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, and have performed together around the world.
Marcel is an hour-long mediation on time and aging that showcases Magni, with Houben in support. It’s filled with surrealist imagery, Blake Edwards-style slapstick and a lot of mime. Magni appears to be at a sort of medical institute and is examined by Houben. There’s a barrage of silly sight gags involving a horse’s head and tail, a variety of hats, a bushy beard, a trampoline, a half moon, the sound of a boxing bell and some audience participation. A cool illusion of a body floating leads to the intimation of death. Whether it’s all actually funny and profound is dependent on one’s taste. It’s possible to be in hysterics or bored due to the length.
Scenic designer Oria Puppo provides a provocatively abstract setting that adds visual flair. There’s a circular, wooden ramp on the relatively bare stage that has a drum, a shopping bag and a large rack on wheels. Everything is masterfully used by the duo.
Ms. Puppo’s costume design of sedate street clothes includes a bowler hat. This injects the spirit of Samuel Beckett into the antics, in whose works the team have performed previously together.
Philippe Vialatte’s etheral lighting design powerfully contributes to the sense of a celestial dimension with its precise shifts from stark brightness to moody dimness.
Taking place on the stage that’s empty except for a table and chairs, The Art of Laughter is a droll lecture superbly delivered by Houben with slight assistance from audience members. For an hour, he commandingly exhibits his sensational movement skills and his effortless and highly effective comic timing.
“Do we have the chance to laugh?” asks Houben in his delightful accent as he explores physicality and humanity. This leads to a dazzling series of physical transformations depicting traveling, being in an art gallery, childhood to adulthood, and in the army. A dog, a fish, The Pope and even a cheese are all hilariously represented as well.
This second portion of the show is supreme entertainment and decidedly elevates Marcel + The Art of Laughter into a very worthwhile sampler of the art form of physical theater.
Marcel + The Art of Laughter (through November 19, 2017)
C.I.C.T./ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Marcel (co-production with TANDEM – Scène Nationale)
The Art of Laughter (co-production with Compagnie Rima)
Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA)
Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 866-811–4111 or visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission