Silent Treatment

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra teams up with the Magic Circle Mime Company to point young listeners toward classical music

* Do you need a silencer to shoot a mime?

* "Mime Dead at Age 89." His last words? "I meant 'stroke,' not 'row, row, row!'"

* A hunter spies a wild mime out in a field, turns to his gun bearer and says, "The situation has changed, Jules. Take my buffalo gun and hand me my mime rifle."

Mime can't get no respect, and no wonder, considering the legions of street performers who practiced "the cage" and "walking against the wind" ad nauseam in the late 1970s. Despite the popular appeal, the pendulum swung back and is still hitting mime in the backside, making it a laughingstock rather than a laugh, says Seattle mime DougMacIntyre: "You don't have to get a license to go out on a street corner and paint your face white. I've seen some pretty bad stuff out there."

But mime deserves respect, considering that its practitioners were the earliest known professional entertainers, in Greece in the 5th century BC. And "new vaudevillians" like Bill Irwin and David Shiner, and the Blue Man Group, show that the art form isn't dead yet. In the right hands, the silence of mime not only speaks volumes but can give voice to noise and music as well.

That will be MacIntyre's task on Sunday, April 11, when he and fellow mime Maggie Petersen -- the entire cast of Magic Circle Mime Company -- portray the characters of Silence, Noise and Music as David Amado conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a family concert, Music, Noise and Silence. The goal is to guide young listeners to a better understanding of music. The excerpts featured from the standard repertoire, such as "The Blue Danube Waltz," are unapologetically straightforward, Amado says: "That's the idea of the show, is to present music in ur-elements."

Intent on challenging Amado's musical authority, these superhuman characters keep giving Amado their opinions, whether or not he wants them. They're not reviewers, but they're just as annoying and insightful as they parody orchestral etiquette. Silence -- a white-faced, white-clad Peterson -- mimics a stiff and pompous approach to the podium and a self-conscious bow. Then she insists on conducting with extravagant and perfectly timed gestures. But Silence is not exactly golden, at least to Amado, because she only wants quiet music, like Strauss' "Pizzicato Polka," a tiptoeing tune that the orchestra plays by plucking, rather than bowing, the strings. When the orchestra plays noisier fare, Silence builds a "wall" -- flattened palms on an invisible plane -- in front of the orchestra. They diminuendo out until she opens the "door," letting the music escape.

Enter the dynamic Duke of Dissonance, who prefers the aural chaos of Charles Ives' "Country Band March." "It's like a patchwork quilt, with little quotes -- hymns, 'Arkansas Traveler,' 'London Bridge,' 'My Old Kentucky Home,' 'Yankee Doodle,'" Amado says. "But a lot of it is so fast, you're like, 'Whoa, what was that?' The combination of quotes and the fact that wrong notes are written into the piece make it completely hysterical."

The gliding character of Music -- Petersen again, this time dressed in a white gown and witch's hat and carrying an accordion -- saves the day (with the help of the audience) as the orchestra plays the Hollywoodesque "Cloudburst" from The Grand Canyon Suite. The storm gives the Duke a shot at one last appearance, MacIntyre says: "They think they've gotten rid of me, but I'm not done yet. So in a sense, it allows us to recapitulate everything that we've done in the program in one piece, and it also gives a good dramatic finale."

Such programs provide essential training, and not only for children, Amado says. "Listening, like a lot of other things, is a skill. If (kids) see somebody on the stage reacting in a way that says this is comic, silly music, then they know how to perceive the piece, and I think that that's a great help."

And the better kids understand music, the more likely they will appreciate the symphony as adults, says symphony publicity director Saskya Emmink-Byron. "That's where it starts. If you can have children interested in classical music, it's basically your future audience."

Although Magic Circle's irreverent music lessons contrast with the solemnity of most symphonic proceedings, they are right in tune with mime's historical origins. "Mime," from the Greek mimos, meaning "imitator," originally meant a form of comic folkplay and the actor who performed it. It had some basic dialogue but emphasized physical action. The earliest known practitioner turned to mime when his voice failed after a series of performances. Mimes were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and their plays offered slices of life, often satirical and obscene, with an emphasis on adulteries, swindles and roughhousing. It was during this period that mimes introduced standard types such as the schoolmaster, the inveterate shopper and the quack doctor.

It wasn't until the 20th century that mime became an independent art form. Etienne Decroux devised what we now consider mime, creating an invisible 3-D world and its objects purely through movement. Decroux's student Marcel Marceau, the most famous mime today, combined Decroux's approach with that of the 19th-century clown Pierrot. Marceau ditched the loose smock but kept the whiteface and silent concentration on delicate technique and illusion.

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