Robert Shields, the most famous mime in America, protege of Marcel Marceau, inspiration to Michael Jackson, and star of The Shields and Yarnell Show, appeared in Santa Barbara last weekend as part of the Festival of Fools, a celebration of the legacy of Marceau, who died last month in Paris. Preceded by a film of Shields’s early improvisational street mime days in San Francisco, he entered the theater in whiteface, wearing a striped shirt and suspenders. With an oversized grin and limbs that seemed to hang and swing from their joints, he hopped from the stage and clambered joyfully into the third row to examine a startled gentleman’s head-while sitting in his lap. Things were off to a good start, but back onstage, a recorded voice began to utter commands. “Up, down, left, right,” it insisted, and Shields’s features and movements took on a contorted, panicked quality.
These were just two of Shields’s many guises: the simpleminded clown and the anxious mime dogged by a critical inner voice. Using sound effects and music, Shields transformed himself again and again, into a frog, a flamenco dancer, a princess, a chicken, Elvis, and Janis Joplin. He became a child chasing a butterfly, his face open with wonder. Shields does not copy characteristic behaviors; instead he embodies his characters, taking them deep inside his supple body and responding with movements natural to whatever he has become. Physical theater, done well, is pure magic, and Shields is undoubtedly one of the form’s living masters.
And then, unexpectedly, Shields came on as himself-or at least one version of himself-to share his newest artistic venture, guitar playing, and to thank the audience for allowing him to take the risk. His musical talent might not match his movement skills, but the lesson was still worth it. And all the vignettes that followed-the weird wizard, the helium balloon that would not budge, and the demonstration of mask work culminating in a marionette that cuts its own strings to become free-were particularly inspired.
“Everyone’s got this wizard inside of them,” Shields told a stage full of expectant students hoping to learn the tricks of the trade in a class held the morning after his performance. “The only thing stopping you from letting it out is your fear, and your judgment of others.” Now that’s a lesson worth taking to the streets.