Mimes get a bad wrap. Like puns, people loathe them irrationally. And especially when they happen to be French mimes, those same wordplay haters often get sent running.
But “Roadway Closed to Pedestrians” lured quite a few students and families to the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s open aired compound to see the performers from across the sea.
The age and power evoked by the towering, softly rounded lines of the NHCC’s architecture added weight and majesty to the waiting crowds mulling about not really knowing what to expect. Wind whipped down into the shadow of the ziggurat on the shivering scatterings of students, wee children, and the occasional fogie.
Finally, appearing from seemingly nowhere, a lone, petite lass, ragged and homeless, clutching a huge briefcase wandered into the depths of the crowd, lumbering about her to view like a gawky herd. Silently, she emoted her face off being unassuming and generally adorable, attempting repeatedly to curl up atop her gigantic briefcase like a tiny animal. She is joined by a no-less-ragged musician tooting abstractly on a base clarinet as he shuffles along.
There is some interaction with the crowd: Alex Knight from Tricklock provided a momentary cup of coffee, though he said nothing seemed to be trying to blend into the crowd at a passer-by.
But as extemporaneous as the stage area for performance was, the best part was that it moved.
The ragamuffin stepped her way through the crowd, which awkwardly parted for her, as she followed white, powdery arrows puffed on the ground. Then the uninstructed crowd trudged after her in a great wave across the plaza, not quite sure of what to do or what they might miss.
And suddenly: a second silent story is introduced. The mass of audience is pulled along by the girl straight into an equally ragged street sweeper, all and all not doing much for the stereotype that all French are dirty.
The battered, dilapidated appearance of the characters brings to mind Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character, a persona born from Chaplin’s social commentary. Here, the appearances are perhaps homage to the endearing good nature of physical comedy and buffoonery of those early days.
As the crowd settled on what they thought to be an appropriate distance, this social reasoning was completed ignored by the toddling children, many of them wielding a balloon many times their own size. A few of them sat a few feet from the bumbling street sweeper diligently enraptured his cleverly acrobatic slapstick and laughing just after the crowd of the adults in order to be part of the fun, which elicited another peal of laughter from the adults at the general cuteness. The boldest of the children were, of course, the youngest, drunk on the power of their new gained ability to self-locomote. They became as much a part of the show as the performers, staring up in curiosity and once testing the waters of reality by giving the lass an experimental whack mid-performance with their mighty balloon.
At first, there is an easy enough “story” to follow, or at least the characters are silently expressive enough to convey the framework of a fable. The bumbling street sweeper defends his territory to the nonthreatening and adorably sleeping homeless girl. The physical comedy is alert, athletic and grand. It is simple and fascinating to behold, being occasionally punctuated by sudden, impressively difficult gymnastics.
The street musician follows to loop percussive beat-boxing and jazzy repetition using a foot pedal and recorder, slowly creating inventive musical tracks piece by piece and layering each to a final product.
Eventually, the conflict melts away to contorting body work and jugglery of two smaller interlaid briefcases withdrawn from the original imposing one, a hopeful comedic bit that might have been pushed to nesting doll absurdity.
Ultimately, it seems to be a love story, the two charming characters leaving united to an uncertain future of Simlish French and wacky vaudevillian hoopla.
Charlie always made sure he got the girl in the end, too.