‘Old Hats’ deftly takes up where ‘Fool Moon’ left off 

click to enlarge Clowning  veterans David Shiner,  left, and Bill Irwin appear in “Old Hats.” - COURTESY KEVIN BERNE/AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER
  • Clowning veterans David Shiner, left, and Bill Irwin appear in “Old Hats.”
Hat tricks, magic tricks, a little soft shoe, astonishing physical feats, sly humor, exquisite silliness, poignancy and charm – it’s all here for the taking in Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s (almost)-wordless show with musical accompaniment, which originated at New York’s Signature Theatre Company and is now launching American Conservatory Theater’s season.

If you saw Irwin and Shiner’s “Fool Moon” here in 1998, or other performances by erstwhile local clown Irwin, you’ll recognize some of the sequences: Irwin’s Italian waiter’s valiant struggle to manage a plate of noncompliant spaghetti; Shiner’s snarly film director’s effort, in “Cowboy Cinema,” to get four game audience volunteers to enact a scene in a silent Western; the amazingly rubbery and shape-shifting pair of commuters, in baggy suits, waiting for a train (they’re now geezers, though, who offer each other pills to cure their aches and pains).

But there are new sketches, too, that extend the competitive nature of the performers’ stage personas: In one, bloviating political candidates vie to out-patriot each other, waving tiny American flags and kissing babies.

Then there’s Shiner’s sad sack, classic-clown tramp, whose weeping and wailing is both funny and touching.

A particularly brilliant sequence captures the inherent creepiness of the digital technology that dominates our modern landscape, as Irwin interacts with — well, himself, on an iPad. And the two are hilarious as a pair of seedy, middle-aged magicians who accidentally saw an audience volunteer in half; Irwin in drag is a sight to behold.

What’s most noticeably different about “Old Hats,” though — in addition to some artful computer imagery by Wendall K. Harrington and Erik Pearson — is the music. Each performing sequence is separated by singer-songwriter Shaina Taub at the keyboard — and occasionally onstage with mic—with a four-member band (percussion, bass and trumpet).

Taub’s a delightful presence who, under Tina Landau’s direction, is imaginatively drawn into Irwin and Shiner’s onstage antics. And her songs, with their witty contemporary lyrics and old-style melodies, are terrific.

The problem is, in most cases her songs don’t relate to any aspect of show and feel like padding. “Old Hats” is, after all, essentially a delicate, varied piece, with no unifying theme to speak of.

Nor is one needed. Despite its occasional nods to a sort of macho combativeness, and to its performers’ aging, but still impressively acrobatic, bodies, “Old Hats” is really all about the virtuosity of Irwin and Shiner, two consummate masters of their craft. Nothing more is needed.


Old Hats

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 5

Tickets: $20 to $120

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www. act-sf.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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