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Marcel + The Art of Laughter

By Jos Houben & Marcello Magni
Produced by C.I.C.T / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord and Compagnie Rima

Off Broadway, Physical Comedy
Runs through 11.19.17
Theatre for A New Audience, 262 Ashland Place


by Ran Xia on 11.9.17


MarcelJos Houben and Marcello Magni in Marcel. Photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt.


BOTTOM LINE: With both a silent comedy and a scholarly analysis of laughter, Jos Bouben and Marcello Magni live up to their titles as two of contemporary theatre's greatest clowns.  

Marcel is one of those simple stories that contains far more than it seems. It appears innocent enough: Marcel (Marcello Magni), an ordinary, if not slightly goofy, older man, arrives at a nondescript facility for a “test” consisting of a series of peculiar activities that are part athletic and part jestful. We discover that Marcel is Italian, is ashamed of his smoking habit, and, is perhaps not exactly qualified for whatever he’s being tested for. The administrator of the test is performed by Jos Houben with a stiff, no-nonsense attitude. Of course, the contrast between the two is instant hilarity.

Magni‘s Marcel and Houben‘s tester carry out this hour-long feast of comedic accidents in five chapters, enigmatically (or perhaps more likely mischievously) titled as: “The Beginning,” “The End of the Beginning,” “The Beginning of The End,” “The End,” and finally “The End of The End.” Around a wooden spiral ramp they go, running and stumbling with agility yet also the awkwardness that comes naturally with the performers’ age—these are not the perfect bodies of acrobats, but men who could be our fathers or grandfathers.

There is something truly delightful about watching people do silly things and not take themselves seriously. The natural rapport and perfect comedic timing between the two performers (their 40 years of collaboration shows) would satisfy anyone who enjoyed Oh, Hello! or One Man, Two Guvnors, but the pair's style reminded me more of Roberto Benigni’s effortless physical comedy, or maybe Charlie Chaplin doing Waiting for Godot. It is a highly accessible piece of performance art that doesn’t call for deep musing, yet at the same time, there is a philosophical angle to this seemingly straightforward, casual fun.

Marcel’s non-threatening “everyman” is the physical embodiment of putting tremendous, repetitive effort into achieving negligible nothings. It becomes almost a concentrated metaphor of life, watching him make many an attempt going up the ramp leading nowhere, while falling time and again. It’s simultaneously a comedy and Sisyphean tragedy, one that applies to possibly everyone and everything. It makes you think that, maybe, Marcel's abstract “test” is possibly a test of life. When the old man is presented his “gift," dangling just out of reach like Tantalus’ fruit, it turns out to be a cane—an inevitable, if ironic, gift for a life well lived.

The Art of Laughter is a masterpiece of Houben‘s capacity at turning the simplest things into comedy, yet the show is disguised as a seminar. It’s a deconstruction of what makes us laugh—its physiology, its psychology, its connection with anthropological development, etcetera and etcetera. However, you still end up marveling at the magician’s tricks, even after he’s shown you every single step, up close. Houben's genius miming skills also never disappoint. From dogs and cows to American mild cheddar, he shows you the extent of possibilities when it comes to physical comedy. 

As you learn from this incomparable master class, the causes of laughter are often coping mechanisms against humiliation. Who would’ve thought that the laughter of “schadenfreude” when we see someone fall, as well as all the silly tall buildings (Houben relentlessly makes fun of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa), has anything to do with homo sapiens' upright spines? Yet with the master‘s charismatic interpretations of the anthropological phenomenon that is laughter, everything makes perfect sense.

Houben also points out there are only two things that make us forget about mortality: “laughter, and orgasm.” The involuntary, uniquely human response is closely connected to the concept of dignity. “Everything is on a vertical scale,” he explains, as he demonstrates the difference between reality and comedy: in comedy, the performer acknowledges the loss of dignity.       .

(Marcel + The Art of Laughter plays at Theatre for A New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, through November 19, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 15 minutes with an intermission. Remaining performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30, Saturday and Sunday at 2. Tickets are $90 – $100 and are available at, or by calling 866-811-4111.)


Marcel + The Art of Laughter are written and performed by Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Scenic and Costume Design is by Oria Puppo. Lighting Design is by Philippe Vialatte. Production Stage Manager is Paul Vella.