When Mimes Talk

The people on line down the block on Valencia Street on Friday were seniors, older adults and mostly non-hipster types. Certainly not the usual Mission crowd. These were ticket holders lining up at The Marsh, to see Geoff Hoyle's Geezer, a one man show, ostensibly about geezer-hood.

But Geoff Hoyle, a master clown, mime and physical comedian, was there less to ruminate about aging than to showcase his talent and take us on a walk down his memory lane.

His skill is impressive. His walk down memory lane -- less so.

Hoyle takes us back to his childhood in a working class family in Northern England, to his youth when his less-than-erudite dad saw his son's theatrical spark and gave him a volume of Shakespeare; he takes us back to his naughty (theatrical) disruptions in Latin class; to his first audition... to a host of other moments -- sprinkled with pantomime and sentimentality -- that launched Hoyle's career.

Hoyle trained as a mime in France, with Marcel Marceau's teacher and went on to Pickle Family Circus renown and became part of the new vaudeville, a genre popularized by Bill Irwin. He made a terrific red-billed Hornbill (Zazu) in the Broadway production of The Lion King.

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His comic turns in Berkeley Rep productions and ACT plays (often as Commedia dell'Arte manservents and wise fools) often provided memorable moments of comedy. But his ventures into the solo form have fared less well. A Feast of Fool was a fragmentary medley of Hoyle's funniest feats. The First Hundred Years was full of prop-heavy sight-gags and mediocre mirth-making.

Hoyle's routines are mostly old school and often old hat. He is technically marvelous, but his original material is wanting.

Hoyle begins with a geezer-pleaser -- a terrific and terrifically grody pantomime of all the new and long hairs growing in all the wrong places -- he pulls foot-long hairs from his ears and nose and tells us about other icky bodily changes that are assaulting his aging body.

Interspersed with vaudeville and British Music Hall antics are scenes and interchanges that tell Hoyle's story. There are moments of impressive clowning -- in one striking feat, Hoyle brings an overcoat to life, giving it a will of its own. In between shtick, he provides reenactments of pivotal conversations in his life, embodying teachers, parents, and employers. At his father's deathbed, Hoyle imparts that he has made good and is now playing the West End. It's a slushy "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" moment.

Charlie Chaplin could bring wistfulness to his clowning. But even he never attempted an autobiographical one-man show -- or talking. And some of the most dazzling moments in Hoyle's shows are the wordless ones. Still, after 40 years of clowning around, even a mime is wont to wax nostalgic.

Geezer runs through May 29, 2011 at The Marsh in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit themarsh.org or call 800-838-3006.

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