at the Playwrights’ Center

Well, you’ve got Marcel Marceau for the highbrows and Red Skelton for the lowbrows, and that pretty much covers it for mime as far as American audiences are concerned. But Karen Hoyer’s “Apparent Appearances” expands the definition, combining elements from classical and vaudeville pantomime with a touch of Emmett Kelly, a trace of Eugene Ionesco, and a generous dollop of Sesame Street. The result is a hybrid entertainment that offers a little something for everybody.

Take Hubert Santete, the most successful work of the evening. The aptly named title character is, simply, a man without a head. This disability is amusing by itself, but Hoyer goes beyond the obvious by placing him in a context and portraying him as an anonymous bureaucrat who is suddenly called upon to read an address at a corporate meeting. Santete gradually becomes aware that something is amiss–his spectacles fall down his back when he tries to put them on, and the glass of water he attempts to drink showers over his tie and coat. Upon divining his condition, he begins to retreat in embarrassment, but he’s halted by a voice seemingly coming from nowhere that tells him to continue: “Don’t worry. They won’t even notice.” Santete resumes his place at the podium, and the voice (a recorded voice-over) proceeds to deliver the address, a morale raiser directed to the “head-hunting committee” that criticizes the members for behaving as if they hadn’t a brain in their heads, reminds them to use their heads, exhorts them to hold their heads high and so on. When Santete finishes his address, to thunderous applause from an unseen audience, he expresses gratitude to the voice for its assistance. It points out to him that his experience has given him a notebook full of ideas, and says, “Remember where the ideas came from.” Whereupon Santete places his list of ideas atop his collar and goes on his way, satisfied that he has as good a head on his shoulders as anyone.

This is a more multileveled story than it might appear at first. Santete’s headlessness could be taken to mean that he is naive or stupid–both qualities contained in the term “empty-headed”–or that he lacks personality, that he is “faceless.” It could indicate that he is a conformist and his address hypocritical in its promotion of originality (“Are there any stones you’ve let unturned? Have you let your two cents collect interest? We want your two cents worth!”). Or that he is nothing more than a “stuffed shirt.” Or that he is a mere “figurehead,” as in Ionesco’s The Leader. What of the voice that comes to his aid? Is it the voice of God, inspiration, his muse, his genius, his conscience, or only “that little voice that dwells within all of us” and pulls us through rough times? While Hoyer’s parable is not a story in the sense that it parallels any literal text, it is nevertheless a complete play, with a beginning, a middle, and a surprisingly upbeat ending. This differs from the classical single-action “white mime,” not only in its use of props, costumes, and spoken accompaniment, but in its stringing together of multiple actions. to create a coherent linear narrative.

A similarly abstract allegory exists in Cobalt Blues, in which a diminutive horned creature played by a hand puppet ascends to a curtained stage, only to be hooked off by a larger version of itself, which in turn is rousted by a still larger copy. We can look upon this tale as a demonstration of the natural order by which little creatures are devoured by bigger ones, or as an exploration of the way in which man creates his gods in his own image–or we can reject both of these depressing interpretations and simply enjoy the gothic elegance of Cobalt Blues’ protagonist, which manages to be engaging without being cloying.

The Timekeeper, in which a red-nosed clown discovers time only to become a slave to his discovery, also breaks with the standard mime restrictions in that Hoyer punctuates the action by speaking key words and phrases. So when the clown stumbles upon a suitcase, he concludes, “time to go”; upon becoming confused by an “Exit” sign, he asks, “Am I coming or going?” Though the character’s subjugation to the tyrannical clock is made to seem like that of a beleaguered office drone, Hoyer’s clown persona veers dangerously close to the cutesiness of Bozo’s Circus, which makes this piece more conventional than the others on the program.

By far the most ambitious piece is an extended opus entitled Present Tense, Past Imperfect, which attempts to describe one night’s dreams of a young author with a work in progress called Murder by Moonlight. In her restless fantasies the characters of her novel mingle with incidents from her past that are associated with the word “moon” and with her hopes for future literary success. The opening moments of this piece are nothing short of astonishing; the surface of the woman’s bed is vertical, so we seem to look down from above on her uneasy sleep–a gravity-defying display of physical discipline on Hoyer’s part. Unfortunately, the dream soon becomes too confusing to clearly follow, and the characters begin to take on the droll grotesquerie of a Maurice Sendak work, making us wonder if the protagonist’s book is the murder mystery she claims it is or a children’s fairy tale. Either way, the sequence in which Hoyer’s pillow attempts to float away–and carry her with it–is sheer ballet.

Mime, like story telling, is frequently treated as fare for juvenile audiences. In spite of efforts to render the genre palatable for adults, its artists often cannot shake off the children’s-theater mannerisms. “Apparent Appearances” is being presented as part of Playwrights’ Center’s late-night series under the slogan “After a night on the town . . . a nightcap for your imagination.” While some audience members sitting near me opening night were sufficiently caught up in the spirit of the moment to pantomime the serving of refreshments during intermission, I’m not sure how something as fragile as this would play to a late-night crowd finishing a pub crawl up Clark Street. Nonetheless, Karen Hoyer is a performer of extraordinary talent, skill, and originality, and her eclectic style is a refreshing change from the often overly restrictive conventions of her art form.