Age against the Machine

Geoff Hoyle's Geezer lives!

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Master showman Geoff Hoyle draws from his skilled knowledge of English music hall, mime, and more in his autobiographical work
PHOTO BY PATTI MEYER

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Death-defying acts of autobiography enliven the main stage at the Marsh this week in Geoff Hoyle's unadorned yet dazzling new solo show. Developed with director David Ford — and one of the very best things to come from the Marsh's fertile performance breeding grounds all year if not longer — Geezer takes a serpentine course through the accomplished career of the longtime Bay Area actor and physical comedian to confront the challenges, epiphanies, and qualified, but nonetheless quality, opportunities of aging and mortality.

There's something undeniably stirring already in an actor as protean as Hoyle talking about metamorphoses beyond his control or ken, but to watch the English-born 64-year-old master showman, without props or costumes, convert aging into a frenetic, heart-pounding, hilarious virtual-reality game of 3-D megaplex proportions lets you know his game, at least, is a long way from over.

But this is a clear-eyed confrontation with the inevitable, as well as a backward glance, half-bemused and half-knowing, at the accumulations of a life. As enthralling as the sure comedy on display are the memories and questions, political awakenings and philosophical musings, that buttress a beautifully crafted script, a fascinating and poignant memoir animated by flights of whimsy and physical poetry that few performers of any age can muster.

Dwelling with a mix of palpable emotions on his working-class roots in postwar Yorkshire, childhood Hoyle was the hyperactive class clown bursting with an unbridled but unguided desire to perform. He'd probably have been medicated anywhere else, but Yorkshire in those days could still provide class clowns with a fighting chance. Crucial assists come from a handful of role models and supporters (all deftly brought back to life before our eyes), one English university's spanking-new drama department (a fine opportunity for Hoyle to relive for us his hysterically clueless audition), and the French government, which financed the young university graduate's study with master of corporeal mime Étienne Decroux in Paris (where the uprising of May 1968 called the young, instinctively socialist artist to the barricades in his off-hours).

The journey of this journeyman artist ultimately lands in the Bay Area, where Hoyle becomes a Pickle Family Circus performer with a budding family of his own (including Marsh star Dan Hoyle, quite a chip off the old block). But the germ of his peripatetic career can be found in the pivotal half-intended gestures of his humble parents, especially those of his father, an otherwise reserved typesetter with a fondness for the jocular tunes of the English music hall — one of which winds its way cleverly through the narrative — who also bequeathed his son a volume of Shakespeare's collected works. His father had little grasp of the Bard himself but a sure sense of the bulky tome's importance as a cultural step up. Indeed, some key lines from Shakespeare — ruing life as "a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage" — form another of the play's supple leitmotifs.

Macbeth's soliloquy, committed to memory by the young Hoyle long before its full import could possibly accrue, is no gratuitous Bartleby citation either but lines deeply connected to his narrative — immortal lines, no less, and testament to the potential in art to simultaneously look without illusion at oblivion and still defy it anyway by the sheer projection, across many lifetimes, of such exquisite perfection and courage.

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