Free Street Theater

A few years ago they called this stuff the “new vaudeville.” It must have been a short-lived renaissance, since you don’t hear that term used anymore; but while it lasted, clowns, mimes, jugglers, contortionists, and certain types of magicians made bold attempts to crash the legitimate theater. The challenge was to create a show, either by telling a story or playing various characters, and to somehow work in that unicycle act. Most of the practitioners of this new vaudeville seemed to work alone, writing their own material, always careful to distinguish between their stuff and the dreaded “performance art,” which showed up about the same time. And some of these guys really made it, like Bill Irwin, who gets my vote as America’s clown laureate. But what of the others, who didn’t make it big?

Ron Bieganski’s one-man show Phantom Rats opened with less than ten people in the audience. When the show was over, no one clapped–most likely because no one was certain that the show was over–and Bieganski had to make his bow to a silent house. Of course we immediately wised up and applauded, but I felt sick about it. I’d just watched an art form die.

Bieganski bills himself as a comedian, juggler, and dancer. Well, if he’s a comedian, it remains to be proven. Only one of his five character sketches (a hyperactive rat) seems in any way comic. The other characters include a feeble old man who lives alone with a cat, a shell-shocked carnival performer called the Human Firecracker, and a rather stark carnival sharpie who runs a concession where people try to win goldfish. The main character, however, is a young man who sits by the window through sleepless nights, waiting for his girlfriend who will never appear and watching household items, such as a clock or a shoe, turn into phantom rats. It’s the young man who opens and closes the show, sets the tone, and establishes the theme. What a downer, and he compounds his depression with self-pity. No wonder his girlfriend never shows up.

It must be lonesome out there in New Vaudeville. Here are five characters, none of them related to each other, and each one pathetically alone. The young man is obviously a stand-in for the author, the suffering artist. The two carnival characters seem like something dreamed up by Ray Bradbury or Rod Serling, although, beneath this superficial appearance, they represent the grim vestiges of the old vaudeville. The old man has only his cat and his memories, and the rat is so desperate he risks his life to make friends with the cat. These characters can only be Bieganski’s own phantom rats.

Nevertheless, Bieganski makes concerted efforts to get these characters to stand on their own feet. He’s most successful in finding a distinct physical persona for each character. He even invests each character with an individual psychology. But Bieganski’s characters still don’t touch the heart. They remain remote and intangible throughout the evening. Bieganski tries to dress them up with sentimental touches, but adding sappy to maudlin only makes matters worse. So in the end, his characterizations are dramatically inert.

Bieganski’s real talent is as a dancer and juggler. Actually, when it comes to juggling–with balls, bowling pins, or machetes–he’s good, but only average by professional standards. And when Bieganski fumbles a ball or a pin he’s quick to cover with an in-character comment, which saves the continuity of the show, yet also reveals his preparation for inevitable fuckups. He can ride a unicycle, too, and does, but none of these feats are as impressive in themselves as his unique blend of dance and juggling.

For instance, he starts out a routine juggling a number of white rubber balls, but soon narrows his interest down to a single ball. This ball–I don’t know quite how to describe it–has an affinity for his body. It travels over his body: up one arm, across his chest, and down the other arm. It lingers here and there. Or it appears perched lovingly, like Botticelli’s Venus, on his hand. And Bieganski dances with it, too, almost intimately, as if that rubber ball were a ballerina, and he her male partner whose choreography consisted mostly of exhibiting her in graceful poses. This is such a lovely routine, it begs to remain in the abstract, but in the end, Bieganski (as the young man in the window) addresses the ball as if it were the tardy girlfriend. Where’s that shepherd’s hook when you need it?

Another beautiful, though slightly less hypnotic routine features a wooden chair as Bieganski’s dance partner. It’s slightly reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s famous pas de deux with a hat rack, only surreal rather than jazzy. This time Bieganski plays the old man, who indulges in a little frivolous regression by spinning the chair as a dancer. Gradually, the old man grows younger and less feeble, eventually standing on his hands on the chair, in triumph over insidious gravity, until he relapses into old age and humbly thanks the chair for supporting him. As was said of Astaire, Bieganski makes the chair look good.

Ten minutes, perhaps, of Phantom Rats is stunningly sensual. The rest is a pastiche of unengaging monologues, such as the Human Firecracker’s story of what it’s like to be blown up for a living, and loosely integrated variety acts, like when the rat takes the unicycle for an eggbeater but nevertheless gets up on it and rides. Now, if new vaudeville is to be for adults what the circus is for children, then there has to be a greater payoff. It should be funny, transcendentally funny, because it’s harder to amuse adults, burdened as they are with more nagging anxieties. It should take arms (and legs) against outrageous fortune, instead of wallowing in despair. And the audience should be on the edge of their seats instead of–like I was–trying to get comfortable in them. Otherwise, you lose your audience and, like the carnival sharpie warns his goldfish, “The toilet bowl is never far away.”

Well, those ten minutes don’t make an evening of theater, and that’s that. I suppose it is a crying shame that the theater hasn’t been more hospitable to the new vaudeville, but that still leaves the subway platform and the park. So dress warm and hang tough, because vaudeville doesn’t come around but every 60 or 70 years.