O joy! O rapture! Bill Irwin's back in town and the town should never let him go. "The Harlequin Studies" at Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, written by and featuring the cherubic-faced clown for whom the word "irrepressible" might have been coined, is a 75-minute, intermissionless evening of low humor and high jinks.
Under the guise of a disquisition on the origin of Harlequin, the commedia dell'arte prankster figure, Irwin and his professorial counterpart, Doug Skinner, emerge from a trunk, impish grins on their faces, mortarboards on their heads. With antic humor, they explain that Harlequin was a meeting of archetype and individual, and a forerunner of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.
The scene is thus set for "Harlequin and His Master Wed," an hilarious, knockdown illustration of the theory. Skinner moves to the piano to play his musical score in the good company of David Gold and Sean McMorris. Irwin, in his Harlequin costume, is joined by three similarly dressed charmers -- the agile John Oyzon, Andrew Pacho, and Steven T. Williams -- who merrily execute the acrobatics devised by Lorenzo Pisoni that Irwin claims he's too old for.
With two wonderful farceurs, Paxton Whitehead and Rocco Sisto, they romp through the familiar story of the old man who wants to marry his friend's young daughter (played with sweet spunk by Marin Ireland). Irwin's Harlequin, literally falling all over himself to save the girl from such a fate, cavorts with a hat stand, fights with a tablecloth, crushes grapes, gets drunk, passes out, dreams -- all without uttering a word.
One of the evening's chief blessings is Irwin's rapport with the audience. Connecting his gambols to the here and now, he becomes surprisingly touching, as if he and we are soothing each other's hurts. It's more than a bravura performance; it's an embracing one. And we embrace him in return.