The First Festival of Fools

For all his talents in mime and movement, perhaps the greatest gift famed French theater artist Marcel Marceau possessed was terrific timing, which lasted right up to the end. Marceau is the honoree of Santa Barbara’s inaugural Festival of Fools this weekend, and while the master mime was never set to attend, his passing on September 22 has brought a lot of extra attention to the event.

“It’s sad, but it’s also good PR for us,” said James Donlon, a former theater instructor at UCSB who came up with the idea for the event two years ago when he visited a former mentor, Swiss clown Dmitri, at the same time as Marceau, who had been Dmitri’s teacher.

“I asked him for advice for younger mimes today,” Donlon recalled. “He said simply, ‘Be good.’ He was right. The problem is that the negative perception of mime generated here is by people who aren’t good.”

To combat that issue, Donlon – a master of movement theater who has performed his original work throughout the United States and Europe – secured the participation of both the local BOXTALES Theater Company (with whom he repeatedly worked over the years) and famed American mime Robert Shields, another former student and friend of Marceau’s. Shields started as a hugely popular street mime in San Francisco before teaming with his then wife Lorene Yarnell to form the duo Shields & Yarnell that enjoyed years of success on TV, in Las Vegas and on Broadway. Shields is also credited with inventing such moves as “The Robot,” and inspiring performers such as Michael Jackson and current break dancers and poppers.

“Although he doesn’t perform as much these days because he’s focusing on his art, he agreed with the philosophy of mentoring younger people and keeping the art form alive, to re-educate the American public,” Donlon said. “We both felt it was important to hand down our expertise to youngsters, as others had done for us. Mime is an ancient art form, and the principle of the old master teacher passing it on is a tradition we wanted to continue.”

Combating mime’s bad reputation among a generation raised on computers and video games is no easy task, Donlon said.

“Mime has been misunderstood in this country. There have been so many bad imitations of Marcel Marceau, everybody doing the man trapped in box. No wonder there are so many jokes. But true movement theater professionals, mimes, and clowns, are consummate actors who are satirical and introspective, reflecting cultural and social values of society. We’re just trying to strike back at stereotypes.”

For this year’s Festival of Fools, Donlon and Shields will each perform solo on successive evenings, at 8 pm Thursday, October 4, and Friday, October 5, respectively, followed by BOXTALES’ world premiere performance of “Iron Man” at 2 pm on Saturday, October 6. Shields will also conduct a free master class for high school students (open to adults) at 11:30 am the same day. The gala tribute to Marceau takes place Saturday night, when all three principals will be joined by Los Angeles physical theater troupe The Chameleons, and local theatrical musicians Earl & the Expanding Polka Funk Experience. The show will also feature vintage footage of both Marceau and Shields in his early days in Union Square. All events are at the Lobero Theater.

“We’re doing it in the old vaudeville style,” Donlon said. “It’s going to be an awe-inspiring and truly entertaining evening of theater.”

For information and tickets, call 963-0761 or visit www.lobero.com.

Ojai Film Festival

Actors Matthew Perry, Mary Steenburgen, and Julie Christie and director Mark Rydell are among the Hollywood types heading for the hills for the Eighth annual Ojai Film Festival, October 4 through 7. Christie will attend screenings of her Academy Award nominated turn in Robert Altman’s classic “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and her current film, “Away From Her” [which also screens at UCSB on Oct. 10], both on Oct. 5; Perry, Steenburgen and director Harris Goldberg will attend a Q&A following the West Coast premiere of the dark comedy “Numb” on Oct. 6; Rydell will present Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind “) with the OFF”s Lifetime Achievement Award on Oct. 7.

Other highlights include a private tribute to the late cinematographer Lazslo Kovacs (“Easy Rider,” “Shampoo”) with his wife, daughter and biographer in attendance; a screenwriting panel on Oct. 6; and several noteworthy local premieres, including a free outdoor screening Oct. 4 of “In the Shadow of the Moon” at the Libbey Bowl, and “Kabluey,” (comedy starring Lisa Kudrow, Christine Taylor, Terri Garr and writer-director Scott Prendergast), “Starting Out In The Evening (Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lily Taylor), and “The Walker” (Woody Harrelson, Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin and Willem Dafoe). Details at www.ojaifilmfestival.com)

SBIFF has announced that Cate Blanchett has been selected to receive the Modern Master Award during the 23rd annual film festival. Ms Blanchett, who rose to stardom with her Oscar-nominated title role in 1998’s “Elizabeth” and reprises the part in the forthcoming sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (previewed by Cinema Society just last weekend), will receive the award January 26, 2008.