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Nashville Scene Silent Witness

Marcel Marceau keeps Bip-bopping along.

By Maureen Needham

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  For 50 years, the world has celebrated Bip, the pasty-faced clown who appears alone onstage with a teardrop forming in one eye. As with Charlie Chaplin before him, language is no barrier for this great artist because he is able to communicate without words. A creation of the great mime Marcel Marceau, who performs at the Ryman Auditorium Saturday, Bip has carried his creator all over the world and has earned him the highest award from the French government as "Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur." Today, Marceau's school in France is an international mecca for students of mime; its influence has spread from the street corners of Paris, where silent performers beg for their suppers, to all corners of the world, where countless mimes can be seen imitating their idol.

I fell in love with Bip on his first American tour in the mid-'50s. Enchanted, I laughed even at a simple skit such as "Walking Against the Wind." It seemed as if a gale had descended onto the stage, and this intrepid clown was forced to galvanize every bit of strength in his skinny body to fight against it. As he skidded farther and farther backwards, I worried that he was going to be blown away at any moment. Yet he doggedly returned again and again, even crawling against the gusts on his hands and knees. When he finally stood upright, his was a triumph of the human spirit.

In "The Maskmaker," Marceau perfectly embodied the fine line between humor and pathos. Assuming the guise of an arrogant fellow who cleverly slips on and off the masks of Tragedy or Comedy, his face and posture changed from happy to sad with the simple movement of his hand across his face. But whoops!--the mask of comedy stuck. It was grotesque to see him struggle so trying to remove it, all the while grinning broadly in an expression that belied his pain. Close to panic, he flopped on the floor and pulled and pulled while the audience, now totally wrapped up in his awful struggle, willed him to escape. Suddenly, the mask ripped off. He fell to the floor, exhausted. Wiser now, he arose and put those surrealistic and dangerous toys out of reach.

When Bip swaggered onstage in the guise of a lion-tamer, still dressed in his collapsed stovepipe hat with perky flower atop, it was hard for audiences to believe that this timid character was really going to enter the lion cage--no matter that he carried an imaginary whip and had taken on the fiercest expression he could muster. I'll never forget the hilarious scene where at last he stuck his head in the lion's jaws, both terrified out of his mind and puffed with pride. Ah, brave Bip! Let's hear it for the common man!

In "Bip Plays David and Goliath," he managed to stage a fight between a giant and a small clown by shuttling back and forth behind a narrow black velvet screen, where he quickly rearranged his posture to suit the character. As David, he squatted down low and turned his face upwards with eyes as big as saucers. Then, stepping behind the screen, he emerged from the other side teetering on tiptoe with shoulders held high and arms dangling down menacingly. Another step behind the screen, and David came dashing out, as fast as he could run away. These metamorphoses occurred with astonishing frequency as the battle intensified. To see this age-old story encapsulated in six or seven minutes--without one word spoken--was truly affecting.

The secret of Marceau's universal appeal lies in the fact that Bip is all too human in his ineptitude, yet, like Chaplin or Buster Keaton, he maintains his dignity in the midst of disaster. When Bip rides on the subway, for instance, he hangs onto a strap that's a wee bit too high for him. Aggressive, taller riders bump him about and knock him off balance. Trapped in the crowd, he's resourceful enough to escape the car by ducking under everyone, bidding a polite but silent adieu as he scoots away. When he attends a cocktail party, he commits faux pas right and left with insouciant blundering. His face is the very picture of pathos when another guest walks off with the pretty girl whom he has attempted, without success, to impress.

Marcel Marceau appears for his one-man show Feb. 14 at the Ryman, in what could turn out to be his farewell tour of the United States. Since it will be Valentine's Day, I'm hopeful that he will portray "Bip in Love" for us. I wouldn't be surprised if, just as I did the first time I saw him, you fall in love with this unique clown who can make you laugh and cry at one and the same time. It is truly amazing how such an artist, who portrays the most ordinary of experiences yet distills the most extraordinary of emotions, can speak to the human heart.

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