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In from the streets, onto the stage, "New Vaudeville."

In from the streets, onto the stage, "New Vaudeville'

Unicyclists, jugglers, mimes, magicians, musicians, stilt dancers, acrobats, and, most of all, clowns (though not the tedious Ronald McDonald type)--they're all part of a theatrical talent parade emanating from the West Coast and now making news all over the country.

Their antics are interdisciplinary: jugglers play horns; musicians juggle clubs. Their humor is contemporary, but their roots in comic tradition are ancient. In number and quality, they amount to a movement. It's being called "New Vaudeville.'

First and foremost, they come from the streets. The best of them--seasoned there, and with extraordinary talent--are moving indoors, to legitimate stages. Their acts are based on variety and circus skills; in fact, San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus has been a training ground for many. Indoors, their presentations develop into entertainments of greater duration, depth, and artistry.

New Vaudevillians are masters of an improvisational rap developed on the street by performers who have to know how to hold an audience that could easily walk on by. But their slapdash is sophisticated; some of the comic contraptions are very intricately constructed. They're so good at what they do that they tend to wink, with the audience, at their own virtuousity; there's a witty distance in their theatrical stance.

Even The New York Times has observed that American street theater really began in the Bay Area, in the ferment of the 1960s: the San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959, is its great conservatory. The climate was hospitable to outdoor shenanigans, and the Bay Area--tolerant and outspoken--welcomed the commentary as well as the entertainment. Sunset began reporting San Francisco street performance in 1972.

Today's variety artists exhibit an egalitarian streak that moves away from the racism and sexism of original vaudeville. They retain the irreverence of '60s street performers, but there's better-natured fun in what they do. They love music, and musical horseplay. Sometimes their comedy has a sly side, but often it's outright buffoonery. The style is definitely upbeat. Antecedents go back as far as Aristophanes, but one distinct ancestor is commedia dell'arte. Resemblances include improvisation (within a framework established through use of stock characters), reliance on music and dance, stylized clowning, acrobatic finesse. In fact, commedia training is a specialty of Dell'Arte Players--whose resident company in Blue Lake, California, is America's only school of physical comedy.

There are also traces of contemporary conceptual art, the nonverbal performance pieces now mounted in many museums and galleries. New Vaudevillians love visual metaphors and puns.

However you explain them, the main point is that, too talented to be ignored, these performers are entering the theatrical mainstream. A vaudevillian Goodman Theatre Comedy of Errors production-- featuring the clowning of Avner Eisenberg and musical juggling by the Flying Karamazov Brothers--was chosen to represent our country at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles; the aerial antics of AirJazz enlivened Taming of the Shrew at Denver Center Theatre.

Autobiographical monologues by such "post-modern' clowns as Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle enjoy runs in major houses. And several Bay Area theaters--Berkeley Rep and the Eureka, for example--are now working spectacular physical comedy into their seasons.

Where to get in on the act

Here are some highlight entertainers from a New Vaudeville festival held in June at San Francisco State University. We give locations and dates of engagements now through December; for performance sites and other details, call appropriate telephone numbers. But don't stop here. There are many more good New Vaudevillians than we had space to list--and there may be others, in the making, on a street not far from you.

AirJazz, jugglers, musicians, dancers; (303) 444-3729. Pomona, October 3. Anaheim, January 3 to 11. Fort Collins, February 8.

Avner the Eccentric (Avner Eisenberg), clown; (212) 575-1044. Malibu, October 5. Palo Alto, week of October 6.

The Brass Band, clown musicians; (213) 936-5123. San Jose, September 12, 13, and 14. Costa Mesa, September 19. La Mirada, September 20. Thousand Oaks, September 22. Mission Viejo, September 26. Las Vegas, September 27 and 28. Los Angeles, October 3, 4, and 5.

Dell'Arte Players, a physical comedy troupe; (707) 668-5411. Arcata, August 29, 30, 31. Nevada City, September 12. Bakersfield, September 19 and 20. Tacoma, November 20 and 21. Portland, November 28, 29, and 30, December 3 through 7 and 10 through 13.

Flying Karamazov Brothers, musical jugglers; (212) 575-1044. Stanford, October 8. Pasadena, October 9. Fullerton, October 10. San Diego, October 11. Loma Linda, October 12.

Geoff Hoyle, clown; (415) 864-5414. San Francisco, October 2 to November 2 (in Ubu Unchained at Eureka Theatre). Berkeley, December 12 to January 31 (in The Servant of Two Masters at Berkeley Repertory Theater).

Ray Jason, juggler. San Francisco (Ghirardelli Square), every Saturday 3 to 6, weather permitting.

Frank Olivier, juggler, unicyclist; (415) 843-7469. San Francisco, October.

Pickle Family Circus, variety; (415) 826-0747. Fort Bragg, August 29 and 30. San Mateo, September 20 and 22. Sacramento, October 4 and 5. Stockton, October 11 and 12. Hanford, October 18 and 19. San Francisco, December 18 through January 4.

San Francisco Mime Troupe, musical satirists; (415) 285-1717. San Francisco. Saturdays and Sundays through September.

Keith Terry, percussionist; (415) 223-1609 or (818) 785-1185. San Francisco, October 15 through 18, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, and November 1. Los Angeles, December 13 and 14 (with dancer Tandy Beal).

Vaudeville Nouveau, jugglers, comedians, musicians; (800) 321-1213 outside California, (707) 778-6300 inside.

San Jose, September 12, 13, and 14.

Riverside, September 19, 20, and 21.

Las Vegas, September 26, 27, and 28.

Sacramento, October 3, 4, and 5.

Los Angeles, October 10, 11, and 12. Anaheim, October 17, 18, and 19.

San Francisco, October 24, 25, 26, 31, November 1 and 2.

Vancouver, B.C., November 3 through 16.

Portland, November 21, 22, and 23.

Seattle, November 28, 29, and 30.

Pomona, December 5, 6, and 7.

Photo: "Bubble Guy' Tom Noddy is an artist in surface tensions. After Vancouver Bubble Festival, he's on international tour

Photo: Bottom's-up pyramid is a fitting warmup for Vaudeville Nouveau's complex balancing acts

Photo: Winning smiles, Frank Olivier (also seen in Sugar Babies) takes a turn, in tutu, on fast-moving unicycle

Photo: Granddaddies of New Vaudeville include Pickle Family Circus clownmaster Larry Pisoni (with tuba) and juggler Ray Jason, who does aerial bowling on San Francisco streets

Photo: Stilt dancer Ned Kelly turns variety skill into art, his robed form echoed by shadow
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Date:Sep 1, 1986
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