Thomas Burns Scully
Today’s review is about a mime show. I feel like that’s going to turn a lot of people off. I mean, it’s possible that I’m underestimating OnStage’s readership, but I see the numbers of views that my articles get, and mime shows don’t pull in the thousands. I’m not sure exactly when in history it happened, but at some point in the mid-twentieth century, mainstream audiences decided that they didn’t want to go and see mime shows anymore. Nowadays, mime is a decidedly niche field, the heyday of Chaplin and Marceau a distant memory, and the reaction of someone being asked to go see a mime show is similar to that of someone being asked to sit through an educational slideshow. So, if you’re going to do a mime show in the modern entertainment landscape and you want to get an audience that isn’t just reluctant middle-school drama students, you’d better be pretty sure of your footing. Put bluntly, the question that hangs over Broken Box Mime Theater’s new production: ‘Above Below’ is, “Why the hell should anyone care about a mime show?”
‘Above Below’ is a series of vignettes told through the medium of silent mime. There are eight performers, accompanied by looped tracks of vaguely avant-garde music, and the stories range from brief sketch-like interludes to more prolonged thought-provoking pieces. Between some of the pieces are inter-titles, accompanied by a quick one-off joke. All actors appear in standard mime-attire: paste-white face with black accents around the eyes, and plain black clothing. The style of the show is something akin to a sketch show, particularly where the funnier pieces are concerned. The more serious fair is almost cinematically styled, and varies in mode from experimental in a Godardian vein, to emotional still life in a Linklater-esque medium. And this is all well and good, but still the question remains: “Why the hell should anyone care about a mime show?”
The cast are all competent mime-artists, some better than others, but all conform to a good median level of talent that keeps you grounded in the piece. Narratively, I distinctly preferred some pieces to others. A recurring bit in which a delivery guy brings pizzas alternately to god and to the devil was very funny, and probably my favorite part of the show. However, ‘The Fool and the Venus’ in which a man falls in love with a statue was ponderous, sadly predictable, and everything that inspires indifference in mime. ‘Ceilings’, on the other hand was an interesting day-in-the-life of gender-flipped characters. The narrative lost me a little in the middle, but its final moment, the staging of a revolving mirror done using nothing but the actors’ own coordination and skill was cool, well-realized, and everything that keeps mime interesting and fresh.
However muddy some of it was, whenever they kept the narrative simple, Broken Box couldn’t help but succeed in creating compelling theatre. In ‘Do You Have it in My Size?’, a shoe store clerk braving peril after peril in an Indiana Jones manner to retrieve a shoe in a slightly larger size for a customer was brilliantly realized. Similarly, the final piece, ‘Above Below’, which gives the show its title, saw a boy reeling from the difficulties of an absent father and setting himself adrift in a boat. The final image of the show, of him lying on the water, fish swimming below him was unquestionably beautiful, a wonderfully realized moving portrait. With DJ Christopher Ross’s apt musical selections playing underneath, I was, in the last moments of the show, sold on the idea of modern mime.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t excuse the points where the show fell down. There were several occasions where the scenes presented by the ensemble were too vague and generalized, and the stories seemingly at once too complex for mime and too simple for regular theatrical storytelling. ‘Starship Excelsior: The Reboot’ (a Star Trek parody) was especially guilty of this. But the points where the show worked ranged from great to exceptional, whereas when the show didn’t quite work, it was passable, but never out and out bad. So, I got something out of this show. That’s how I try to look at every theatrical experience, did I leave with more than I came in with? And the answer here was yes.
However, we still haven’t answered my first big question: “Why the hell should anyone care about a mime show?” Well, I don’t know. I can say that if you’re brave enough to shell out the $20 for a ticket to ‘Above Below’ you’ll most likely see something you’ll enjoy. And it’s always good to add a little new color to your palette. But why this over anything else? You can do a lot for $20 in New York City. In theory you can go and see ‘Hamilton’ twice for that money… and everyone is talking about that show. Why should you care about a bunch of weirdos downtown trying to resurrect something that has been confined to the realms of drama school classrooms and cheap cartoon sight-gags? Hell, I don’t know. Just because? Seems a good enough reason to do most things. Because you might enjoy it? Because these people care about what they’re doing and are working hard? The universe is finite, life has no meaning, none of your actions have any long-term consequence, so go see a mime show? Pick one, they’re all good.
‘Above Below’ runs at HERE Arts for four more performances, closing on Sunday October 25th. Tickets and info available at here.org and brokenboxmime.com. Tickets start at $20. It is presented by Broken Box Mime Theater.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)