Bowlers and Balderdash 

Gorgeous havoc, inspired nonsense, supreme silliness: That's Sobelle and Lyford.

Years after it was built, there's still something exciting about the Berkeley Rep's "new" Roda Stage when it's used without any set, or when a show is played on a minimal set that gets pulled away to reveal the back wall, utilitarian banks of lights, and the door that leads to the loading dock. This bareness seems to say that behind all the magic of a production, all the busy-ness and sleight-of-hand, lies the void.

Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford are interested in the void. They're also interested in Laurel and Hardy. Lyford got so fixated that he failed the first year of his MFA program at UC San Diego because he was always in the library researching the duo, looking for clues to their relationship. When Lyford and Sobelle met, they fell naturally into developing all wear bowlers, a fabulously comic romp that merges the Absurdist theater of the '50s and '60s with the silent films of the '20s and '30s. This is clowning, but of an elegant and subversive sort, full of impeccably rendered ventriloquism and sleight-of-hand, pratfalls, and funny voices. Oh, and a gleeful disregard for the fourth wall, with the two performers interacting extensively with the audience, the lighting, and the mechanics of the stage.

Bowlers opens on a large screen set in the middle of that blank Roda Stage. Projected onto the screen is a grainy film of two men in bowlers and ill-fitting suits going ... where? Who has the map? And is it any use? Explosively propelled out of their movie, the characters Earnest and Wyatt start causing gorgeous havoc. Something as simple as eating lunch becomes a production, much as Laurel and Hardy would milk a simple situation for every last bit of silliness. Like their historical counterparts, nothing is safe in Lyford and Sobelle's hands. Eggs, newspaper, power tools, an especially rickety-looking ladder — all get used and abused to maximum comic effect. Speaking of which, there's a big pitcher of water that ... well ... patrons with front-row seats might consider wearing raincoats. Two words: spit take.

As bold Earnest, the boneless Sobelle does several enviable and fluid shoulder rolls, ricochets off the edge of the proscenium, and grouses constantly about his partner being an idiot. Lyford plays Wyatt as the shy one, who in moments of panic pulls at the seat of his pants and makes an indescribable keening noise — at least until he takes center stage to begin threatening the audience ("Giggle, giggle, giggle, bleed, bleed, BLEED") and doing his best Godzilla imitation, which is a fine one indeed. Although you really shouldn't take your eyes off Lyford during this routine, it's worth stealing a glance at Sobelle to catch his reaction.

The two share a fluid intimacy that leads viewers to wonder what was really up between all the great pairs whose work these guys reference. There is no way for them to do what they're doing without knowing each other exceedingly well; the level of trust, preparation, and attention they must bring to every moment is instructive in a hurry-up world. The smoothness of the delivery belies the years the two have spent honing this show, which has been all over the world. It also bodes well for their next project, the Rube Goldberg-inspired machines machines machines machines machines machines machines, which will hopefully do so well that we won't all have to go to Philadelphia to see it. Unlike in the kind of cinematic derring-do that relies on wires and computers, these guys do all their own stunts, and it's beautiful to watch.

While this is a great show for kids, there is adult language; the F-word in particular gets a workout near the end. There are also scary moments that might be too much for very young children. Lyford and Sobelle are hilarious and their physicality pitch perfect; they're also not afraid of going to some dark places with the work, and a moment where one of the characters "dies" might be hard to explain to younger audiences. But then again, kids see and hear a lot worse on television and in their videogames, and it's rarely so well executed and intelligent as this.

All wear bowlers is a dizzying, perfect collision of Absurdism, vaudeville, and partner routines — or, if you prefer, Beckett for people who don't like Beckett. Lyford and Sobelle wanted to address isolation, identity, nothingness; they freely acknowledge their debt to the Irish playwright's Waiting for Godot, and the title is even taken from Godot's stage directions. But where a night of Beckett can be an endurance test, these 75 minutes whip by too fast in a blur of helpless, teary laughter. While some of the bits seem as old as the parched-looking hills in the film's distance, they've been rigorously recombined into something elegant and surprisingly deep. See it because it's funny, because the performers are brilliant, because you don't know where it's going any more than the hapless Wyatt and Earnest do. See it because even if the void looks back into you, it rarely does so with this kind of bravura.


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