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All Wear Bowlers

The Spaces Between Film and Stage

A bare stage with a projection screen, the image of two men walking amidst a dusty, black and white cinematic landscape, the sounds of piano rumblings reminiscent of the music from the silent film era. This is where Berkeley Rep’s production of “All Wear Bowlers” opens, with Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle, both the authors and stars of this production, exploring the permeations between film and stage, performer and audience, vaudeville and postmodern theater.

Lyford and Sobelle’s performances revel in the physical -- spewing water, tricks of the eye, slights of the hand, and sudden outbursts that include expletives and pantomimed gestures. Though clearly influenced by Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, and even Andy Kaufman’s Latka, “All Wear Bowlers” becomes a production that traverses the history of the twentieth-century bafoon. It reveals a pastiche of comic characters while making one think about how film affects theater, and how the boundaries of performance art are forever altered and influenced by technology.

Unlike Beckett’s characters, waiting for Godot’s arrival and potentially salvation, and therefore their own meaning, Lyford and Sobelle’s characters, Earnest and Wyatt, are looking for a way out. They are not waiting for anything to happen to them—they want off the stage, out of the theater, back into the land of the black and white film, and they try everything possible to make this happen. They resist being observed and forced to perform. Ultimately, they appear to be waiting for the end -- of their lives as well as the end of the stage. They climb the rafters, cross the line between audience and performer, and strip the stage bare, revealing all the mechanics of the theater. The audience experiences long pauses, silences, then sudden movement and antics. Here we find film, magic, and slapstick, all merging; also here is the opportunity to observe these two characters, both integrally tied to one another, revealing the humor and beauty to be found within co-dependence, and the phenomena of how two people can act and work beautifully as one.

The success of this production is in Lyford and Sobelle’s engagement with the material and their ability to work in sync. The gags are joyful, complete; the physical comedy is tight and sure. The opening, and particularly the actors’ interaction with the film, is the most visually interesting and original portion of the performance. But since this revelation comes so early, some of the latter parts of the performance appear to drag.

Where the earlier part of the play is silly and playful, the later is more serious -- here is where the authors struggle to say something larger about their characters’ place within the world, leaving the audience in a similar quandry as the performers. That is, we too are ready for the departure of these classic, archetypal characters, as much as they are ready for their own escape.

This means that though the gags, the humor, and the performances themselves make “All Wear Bowlers” worth experiencing, the narrative’s very meaning is unclear. Yes, the authors’ ambition to create a performance piece using this rich material -- a piece that is as postmodern as our time -- is admirable and ambitious. But where Beckett’s play revealed the absurdity of waiting around for salvation, “All Wear Bowlers” leaves one in that ambiguous postmodern place without any one truth, or meaning.

At the opening of the performance a quote on screen reads: “Remember where you are and where you come from. But you better know where you’re going.” The references to the past revel in the form and the artists, revealing who and what influenced this production. But Earnest and Wyatt, and their audience, don’t necessarily know where they’re going, or how to get there -- they are forced to tend with the fact that there is no way back to where they came from, no way to get from where you are to where you were. Regardless, “All Wear Bowlers” provides a lovely diversion, a mysterious journey back and forth in time that’s full of laughter.

All Wear Bowlers
Runs through December 23rd
at Berkeley Repertory Theater
Box office 510.647.2949
Tickets $33 - 61