Richmond Shepard, at 83, is the world's oldest active mime. Inspired by the classic 1945 French film Children of Paradise, Mr. Shepard studied mime, wrote books on the subject, and, intriguingly, created a piece that corrected the fiction of the famous film. That film was the only one permitted to be made in Nazi-occupied France, and was intended to show that French culture was still alive and well. The film was about the life of a famous mime, Gaspard Debureau, who flourished in the 1820s. Mr. Shepard went back to a contemporary biography of Debureau to show his complex character. This show has been expanded several times since the 1970s and now appears at Theater for the New City.
It's better than a silent film, with two hours' worth of beautiful music (from pianist Harrison Wade) and lots of gymnastics, dance and mime. Mostly, Debureau (Chris Douros) performs several emotional mime routines which were transcribed in his biography and also appeared in Marcel Carné's film. Debureau is charmed by a store window mannequin (Denise M. Whalen), fights an enemy who comes back to haunt him (Marcus Watson), witnesses a racy can-can dance, and much more. Even the standard bit of looking at oneself in the mirror (played by Nathaniel Moore) comes off as fresh and amusing. Debureau, a refugee from Bohemia, began as a tightrope walker, met Napoleon, and ended up performing under an oppressive contract with impressario Bertrand (Peter De Paula). Still in love with his performing partner and wife Louisa (Kendall Rileigh), the death of his children and other factors push him to have affairs with many other ladies from Marie (Jenny Chang) down to the new mannequin, Monique (Denise M. Whalen). Really, he has never forgotten his first love, the Czech lady Garance (Jenny Chang); her mystery lingers throughout the whole performance. Jumping around chronologically from Debureau's career-threatening mishap (even as France yearns for Republican government in 1830) back to Bohemia and in and out of white-faced stage magic (at one point, Debureau nurses a baby) Children of Paradise can't help but make you smile.
Several of the company trained with Richmond Shepard, who started America's first ensemble mime troupe in 1951. The whole piece showed me why people are still so dedicated to this art. The fight scenes, choreographed by Marcus Watson, involve somersaults, ducking through opponents' legs, and much wonderful playfulness. All of the fourteen performers are graceful and were good in their brief speaking interludes, too.