A Match Made in Clown Heaven

FOOL MOON Created by Bill Irwin and David Shiner. At the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

FOOL MOON" represents the first collaborative effort between two artists who can arguably claim to be the modern standard bearers of the baggy-pants clown tradition. Bill Irwin and David Shiner, who premiered an earlier version of this work at last year's Serious Fun Festival at Lincoln Center, are both familiar faces.

Mr. Irwin has presented a series of theater pieces to great acclaim, including "The Regard of Flight." His wordless Broadway production, "Largely New York," even received a Tony nomination for best play. Mr. Shiner is largely familiar through his work with the Cirque du Soleil, with his appearance being one of the highlights of their "nouvelle experience."

Individually, both artists are enjoyable talents. But together they are greater than the sum of their parts. Irwin is a moon-faced, silent clown whose best bits involve a hapless physicality.

If you've seen him before, you'll be familiar with much of his schtick: his getting sucked into the air by the curtain or falling victim to the mysterious magnetic force in the wings; his sudden launching into uncontrollable dancing; his staircase descent into a seemingly bottomless trunk.

Shiner specializes in audience participation. A subtly malevolent presence, he wreaks havoc among the crowd: He climbs over the audience to get to what he thinks is his seat; takes money from people and freely redistributes it; flings people's coats across the room. Spying a camera in the audience, he will confiscate it and start swinging it madly over his head. His best pieces involve elaborate skits in which audience members are recruited to perform.

If you are anything less than a major thespian, Shiner will be ruthless. But he will be even more scathing if you ham it up too much. The bits depend, of course, on the talent of the participants. But on the evening I attended hilarity abounded, and one suspects that is usually the case.

What makes the evening so effective is the contrast between the two actors. In large doses, Irwin can be too sweetly cloying, and you may find yourself wanting to punch Shiner. (Indeed, the man who had that camera taken almost did.)

But together they balance each other out, and they form a great new comedy team, linked only by those baggy pants.

The final image of the pair sitting on the moon, rising silently towards the sky, is indelible.

To provide a respite from the hijinks, musical interludes are provided by the wonderful Red Clay Ramblers.

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