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Renowned clowns seize the stage at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Theatre for a New Audience presents comic one-acts “Marcel” and “The Art of Laughter”

November 2, 2017 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Marcello Magni (at left, wrapped in red drapery) and Jos Houben share a dramatic moment in the comic one-act “Marcel” at Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Photos by Gerry Goodstein
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Comic genius is a wondrous thing to behold.

This is another way of saying Marcello Magni and Jos Houben will make you laugh like a hyena and maybe shed a furtive tear.

They are preeminent physical-theatre artists — in other words, renowned clowns, as opposed to the creepy kind that populates horror films such as Stephen King’s “It.”

Magni and Houben make audiences guffaw in two comic one-acts  — “Marcel” and “The Art of Laughter” — that Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) is presenting in a double bill at Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The plays opened at this Brooklyn Cultural District venue on Nov. 1.

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The comic duo comes from Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, a 19th-century theatre that was reopened in 1974 by Peter Brook, the celebrated British director of William Shakespeare’s plays.

Magni and Houben created “Marcel” and Houben created “The Art of Laughter.” They’re the entire cast of the two plays. It’s just them lighting up the stage with humor through the brilliantly skillful use of their bodies and faces and a few props.


Old age is a clown’s worst enemy

“Marcel” has heart-wrenching moments in the midst of its hilarity.

People who are getting older will identify with the title character, who’s played by Magni.

Marcel is a physical comedian who has been summoned to a testing place to renew his clown license.

Houben, who is dressed in black like an undertaker, plays a dour, sour-faced individual who administers the licensing tests. He gives Marcel tasks to carry out that the clown finds difficult because he’s no longer young.

Old age ain’t no place for sissies, as actress Bette Davis famously said. And as it turns out, it’s not such a great place for physical-theatre artists.

At some moments, though, Marcel gives the audience glimpses of the agile comedian he must have been in his youth, such as when he does a deft routine with a Charlie Chaplin-style bowler hat.

It wouldn’t be right to reveal all of Magni’s and Houben’s bits of schtick. Suffice it to say that Magni can turn a cheap umbrella into a laugh-getter. A folding chair is an even bigger laugh-getter in his hands.

A seminar in physical comedy

The second one-act, “The Art of Laughter,” is a solo turn by Houben. As if he’s teaching a seminar, he shows the audience how actors use their bodies to be funny.

This play is hilarious and utterly absorbing — whether he’s tripping over his own two feet, imitating a drunk trying to screw a cap on a bottle or pretending to be a chicken looking at modern art in a gallery.

Polonsky Shakespeare Center is the first venue where “Marcel” and “The Art of Laughter” are being presented in a double bill. They work really well as companion pieces, adding up to a thoroughly satisfying theatre experience.

Also, this is the U.S. premiere of “Marcel.”

Italian-born Magni and Belgian-born Houben are long-time theatrical collaborators. They met at Jacques Lecoq’s mime and movement school in Paris. In 1983 Magni was among the founders of a physical-theatre company in London called Theatre de Complicite. Houben was one of the company’s original members.

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Theatre for a New Audience’s 2017-2018 season opens with “Marcel” and “The Art of Laughter.”

The double bill of comic one-acts runs through Nov. 19 at Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

The theatre is located at 262 Ashland Place in the Brooklyn Cultural District.

For tickets, see or call 866-811-4111.



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