In T.H. White's fantasy epic The Once and Future King, Merlin the magician lives backward in time, growing younger rather than older. Marcel Marceau seems to do the same thing. Having just turned 74, he displays an astonishingly youthful physical agility and attitude of playful wonderment. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut as a solo artist with his whiteface alter ego Bip (a poetically comical cross between Chaplin's Little Tramp and commedia dell'arte's Pierrot), the great French pantomime actor comes to town next week for the first time in almost a decade, presented by Performing Arts Chicago in an engagement that includes master classes and public tributes as well as shows (see listing for details). One hopes all the pomp and circumstance won't obscure the quality that makes Marceau one of the few essential artists of this century--the remarkable humility with which he approaches his characters. His wordlessly eloquent solo sketches--a lion tamer threatening, coaxing, and finally begging his recalcitrant cats to jump through their hoop, a mask maker trying to pry loose the grotesquerie stuck to his head (with an astonishing contrast between frantic body and immobile face), a waiter and his customers in a crowded cafe brought to life through split-second transformations--are more than displays of fanciful whimsy and technical virtuosity. They're simultaneously hilarious and poignant portraits of powerless little people trying to survive life's trials with some dignity and maybe even happiness--universal emblems of the human condition, given individuality by Marceau's astounding range of facial expression as well as the precision and detail of his gestures. While his influence is all too prevalent--from the whiteface clowns who accost you in the park to the multitude of actor-writers playing multiple characters in one-person shows--Marceau the magician remains unmatched. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1500. Opens Wednesday, April 2, 7 PM. Through April 6: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 3 PM. $20-$50; half price for children when accompanied by an adult at the matinees on Saturday and Sunday; $250-$500 for the opening-night performance and postshow gala. --Albert Williams
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marcel Marceau photo by Roger Pic.