The United States has no tradition, as the Europeans have, in dealing with mime as an independent art form, and consequently the U.S. has been at a loss at producing competent performers or appreciative audiences. The National Mime Theater, now playing at Lesley College's Welch Auditorium, may have gone a ways to solve that problem. The troupe has combined old-fashioned mime with the stylized anarchy of a clown show and the result is a production that is at times uneven, but one that is unusually creative and often extremely funny.
Kenyon Martin, the artistic director of the company, conceived and directed the show and serves as the principal actor in its first portion, Beyond Words. He is an engaging mime with a bouyantly-light and sure feeling for comedy. He makes his varied talents readily plain during the nine short sketches of classical mime which combine to make Beyond Words the perfect introduction to this too-long ingnored stage craft. Dressed in clown's costume and white face, working without props and only occasionally with music, Martin almost miraculously manages to create a palpable world out of nothing but his own imagination.
Martin's career as a performing mime began in 1960, with a year's break to study in Paris under Marcel Marceau, the acknowledged master in the field. Apparently it was a year well spent and Martin has learned his lessons. As a performer he has a gift for graceful brevity; each of his movements is sharply focused and pared down to its essential components. As an interpreter of the human condition he is equally successful. His rich comedy is often deepened and colored by a marvelously portrayed delicate poignancy.
One of the short pieces in Beyond Words, a sketch called "A Street Clown," is a tour de force of technical skill in which Martin displays his mastery of traditional forms. He juggles, walks a tightrope--or at least makes it easy to believe that's what he's doing up there on that bare stage. In one truly amazing sequence, as if to show off, he completely alters his expression a dozen times with a passing flash of his hand.
As a director, however, Martin's touch is less sure. Several of the sketches--particularly those in which Martin does not perform--maintain a heavy--handed pretentious quality. Rather than portraying a situation they strain after some large generalizing statement about the nature of man, beauty and hope. The other performers, Martin's students, cannot match their teacher's brillance. Cindy Benson is too earthbound as the dancing doll that comes to life in the "Dollmaker's Dream" and both she and Stephen Driscoll, who is quite good as the dollmaker, seem to fight against the familiarity of their material.
The second half of the program, Unnatural Acts, is billed as an experience in "total" theater and, while it isn't quite as total as all that, it is an hour of funny, raucous burlesque. The four performers, Benson, Driscoll, DruMarkle and Peter Kovner, race hysterically around the stage in baggy, decorated long johns. The skits are shorter and faster paced than the ones in Beyond Words, and the humor here is largely verbal. The performers in the second half of the show seem possessed by a manic energy and a keen sense of the absurdity potential in any situation. The high point of the entire performance is Markle's brilliant parody of Shirley Temple singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop."
Occasionally Unnatural Acts degenerates into an excess of tiresome screaming but more often it manages to make pointed comments about politics and society without pressing for them. At its best it shares those qualities of artful brevity and carefully balanced, controlled energy that makes its companion piece so effective.