We hear the dissonance of an orchestra warming up for a concert as the lights come up on two empty chairs at center stage. No instruments are in sight, only a man in leotards who works his way through imaginary crowds and takes his seat. An entire audience surrounds the solitary figure.m
We watch this man, Richard Morse, and his mime troupe for the better part of two hours and although not a word is spoken, our attention never wanders.
"I was in the 'speaking theater' for years and became less and less enchanted with the way it was going," says Morse, who is doing some of the most important work in mime in this country.
"I found a lack of vision in our theater. I had a sense of vision -- of what the theater could be -- from an early time, from college, so I embarked on my own. There was something leading me, and I felt I had to follow it because of my dissatisfaction."
Five years ago he founded the Richard Morse Mime Theatre in Greenwich Village -- the only resident repertory mime theater in existence.
The company performs seasonally at its playhouse; operates a school of mime for children and adults; and takes theater "to the people," performing in banks at lunchtime and in shopping centers, museums, and festivals.
The troupe has made two international tours under the auspices of the State Department and was invited to perform at Lincoln Center.
"Most importantly," Morse says, "we are creating a mime tradition in this country."
American mime artists, he explains, inherited "white face," the French tradition of mime. Morse departed from "white face" very early in the development of his theater.
"We find subject matter in the world around us instead of going to abstract forms -- forms that have been used in European mime," says Morse, whose scenes capture the familiar and extend the mundate.
In "Crush Hour," a man and woman riding on a subway try to get together. They are tossed, jostled, and kept separate by an imaginary rush hour mass until finally the man is swept out the door as the train is leaving.
Morse tells how a friend who had always been terrified of the New York subway was helped by seeing that scene.
"He was able to step back and say, 'Isn't it silly how we behave? Isn't it silly how in our efforts to be so serious we are humorous?' I think there's a healing effect to laughter."
Academy Award-winning French film director Jean Jacques Annaud says he has not seen anything like Morse's work in France, an ironic comment since Morse studied in that country with Etienne Decroux, the great mimist who also taught Marcel Marceau. Morse is now assisting Annaud on his new film, "Quest for Fire."
"We are moving toward a synthesis of the arts by expanding mime," says Morse. "We embrace painting, sculpture, dance, music, sound -- and even words are spoken on occasion."
In a recent production, "Museum Alive," the troupe explored art through theatrical representations of paintings and sculpture. Works of art came to life, revealing their potential to open us to ourselves -- to our possibilities and our emotions.
Morse defines mime as acting with the body.
"In a sense, it is the highest expression of theater art because it blends form with content, and you've got to have both -- the truth of the acting and musicality, the beauty of line and form," he says.
"Mime is the theater of motion, the theater of silence.Mime is not imitation; rather it is the representation of life -- life made visible. As one critic put it, 'It's making the invisible visible.' Mime is creating a world with the body." In a beleaguered world, Morse is convinced of the worth of his life in the theater.
"Theater is a necessary appetite," he says. "Expression is essential in human life. Poverty, crime, all the ills that plague the times today arise from a poverty of the spirit. Our contribution is not only to look at life around us but to see how it can be improved."