It’s hard to imagine the Bay Area theater scene without Geoff Hoyle, who’s been a tremendous comedic presence on local stages from the early days of the Pickle Family Circus down to frequent shows at Berkeley Rep and ACT today (not to mention notable side trips such as the original cast of Broadway’s The Lion King). From the start his work has been so rooted in his marvelous facility for physical comedy that it’s especially striking that his new, sold-out solo show is about the body falling apart. An often hilarious reflection on aging, Geezer was developed with and directed by David Ford at the latter’s frequent stomping ground the Marsh, where Hoyle’s son Dan has enjoyed long runs in his solo shows Tings Dey Happen and The Real Americans (the latter is still running after a hiatus to recover from a leg injury).
At least as seen on opening week, the start of the show is a bit shaky. Hoyle talks about starting to feel old, which leads him quickly into a hyperactive routine running through various health problems as if inside a videogame. Hoyle’s a marvelous clown, and the cartoonish physicality of this sequence gives him a chance to show that off, but I didn’t find this part the least bit funny, which made me concerned that maybe I was going to hate the show. Now I think it’s just that not everything is going to be accessible to folks under fifty. To find appreciate this grim gag it’s helpful to be all too familiar with the litany of medical woes he describes, and also to find videogames novel enough to be funny in themselves.
Fortunately the show quickly becomes grounded when Hoyle starts talking about his life. He talks about being 64, four year older than his father was when he died. He acts out visiting his dying father in the hospital and depicts his dad in happier days, singing “The Sheik of Araby.”
Also tremendously engaging is Hoyle’s account of his early moves into theater, from his working-class Yorkshire dad giving him a book of Shakespeare and encouraging him to “work with your head, not with your hands” to his Latin teacher catching him clowning around, acting out the story she was telling, and making him do it in front of the class. He recounts an absurdist audition for drama school and equally absurd-seeming exercises the master mime Étienne Decroux had him do in Paris, while students rioted in the streets outside.
The autobiographical material is the heart of the piece, and the narrative is strongest when that heart shines through the shtick. After reenacting an embarrassing visit for his new gal to meet the parents, he shifts to playing himself today embarrassing his kids with their friends over dinner. But fortunately the more fanciful gags are quite funny as well, as when he checks his death reservation in an automated phone menu. The narrative could be more focused at times, but it’s packed with zingers and (while far from a clown show) gives him a chance to make ample use of his wonderfully expressive face and body. A bit where he acts like a bird, for instance, is hysterical.
In fact the show gets tighter, funnier and generally stronger as it goes along. When he gets back to the theme of elderly ailments it’s in a marvelously poignant reflection on the virtues of dying at home instead of in a home. “The day I die will be like any other day, only shorter,” he says. That leads into a terrific bit about establishing a sort of “elder commune,” because “Who will take care of us besides us?” He doesn’t get into details, although it sounds a lot like the idea talked about in Stagebridge’s Sylvia’s Advice on How to Age Gracefully on the Planet Denial last year. The dialogue between the imagined residents is priceless, especially with the elderly Geoff cracking jokes despite having little or no idea where he is. “I have so much to do to get ready for bed, I have to start as soon as I get up in the morning,” he says. It’s a tremendous scene that beautifully sets up a transcendent finale. Whether you love the show from the start or warm to it as its pieces begin to come together over the two hours, it would be mighty difficult not to love it by the end.
Show #32 of 2011, attended April 2.