A Beautiful Mime

You cannot get a Mikael the Mime Happy Meal at your local drive-thru window. There are no Mikael the Mime pacifiers or chewable vitamins on sale at Target, and there are no Mikael the Mime video games that teach your pipsqueaks to blow up extra-terrestrials with a Mikael the Mime machine gun.

Mikael Rudolph simply doesn’t work that way. The North Minneapolis-based mime artist works in the tradition of vaudeville and European clowning. He harkens back to a time when entertainment was simpler, and more closely linked to play than to the cult of personality. His most precious prop is a healthy imagination, not a fog machine. He can hold a thousand small children and their Headline News-addicted parents in awe and on the edge of their seats with nothing more than a little slapstick comedy, magic, puppetry, hat juggling, dance, and pantomime. He does all this, and he gets fan mail for doing it.

When mimes get fan mail, it’s really something. Some of it comes laboriously wrought in crayon by little hands expressing big sentiments, like “From Joey—I ENJOEY D YOR SHOE.” Rudolph, who after 15 years of gigs at churches, schools, and libraries, speaks “small child” fluently, translated the note as follows: “It’s great, you see, ’cause this kid thought it out himself. His name is Joey. He knows how to spell that. You can just hear him saying, ‘enjoyed’ and spelling it with JOEY in the middle.” An equally thoughtful, if slightly less appreciative young fan wrote, “Dear Mr. Mime, I’m sorry I threw stones at you. I didn’t know it was wrong.” One letter from a mother of two boys informed Rudolph that her sons enjoyed his work so much that they now play “mime” around the house. They occasionally ask, for purposes of gratuitous discipline, to be put in a “mime out”—meaning they must remain silent in an invisible box for a minute or two. They came to see his show two Saturdays in a row.

It could be that children are drawn to Rudolph because, as a mime and street clown, one of his main assets is what looks like a complete lack of impulse control. The nature of the work requires razor-sharp observation skills, impeccable comic timing, and a damned fine working knowledge of the line between good clean fun and trouble. Children are a little wobbly on all those subjects, and admire his physical and social deftness. His fans aren’t all kids. “I love this guy. He’s angry, lecherous, and mean to children.” I once heard these words uttered by a 30-something hipster, attending one of Rudolph’s shows, which leads me to believe that adults are drawn to him for essentially the same reasons.

Most folks think they don’t like mime. Rudolph is quite familiar with the widespread phenomenon of “mime-aversion.” This is an understandable by-product of the great mime influx of the 1970s, in which American birthday parties, street corners, and Christian youth rallies were overrun by a legion of mute hacks in clown-white sniffing away at invisible buttercups, or wiping away crocodile tears as their beautiful balloons flew up, up and away. Rudolph recently explained to me, “This is one of the challenges of working in an art form that is deeply respected in Europe and in most other cultures—but in our sound-bite culture, is the exception. I can’t compete with television for special effects or perfect execution. I am live theater, and I pride myself on being able to perform for any audience, of any age, anywhere.”

That facility didn’t happen overnight. Rudolph, 44, has been pursuing a career as a mime since his teens. When he was a child, he and his father went to see Marcel Marceau perform. As they were leaving the theater, he said, “Dad, I think I’d like to do that.” His father replied, “No one makes a living that way.” To which he sensibly replied, “That guy does.” Within five years, Rudolph had enrolled in his first mime class. He went on to study with Marc Bauman of the Marcel Marceau School in Paris, the Seattle Mime Theater, Ringling Brothers’ Pepper Kaminoff, and many others—basically he’s worked with everyone who’s anyone in this silly business. On two separate occasions he had the opportunity to perform his signature “floating rock” piece in a workshop presided over by his idol, Marcel Marceau. The first time he performed, Rudolph was so intimidated by Marceau that he spent the entire performance staring at the floor. Marceau said that for the comedy to work Rudolph needed to become a victim of the circumstances, share his face—and his emotions—with the audience. Two years later, Rudolph performed the same piece for Marceau. The legendary artist noticed a difference. “In this style,” he said, “he is a master. Absolutely. It could not have been done any better.”

Rudolph is especially excited that his upcoming performances precede Marceau’s Minneapolis dates. His new show features at least two new mimo-dramas crafted especially for the stage, with Marceau’s explicit advice in mind. Marceau impressed upon Rudolph several salient truths. According to Rudolph, it has long been Marceau’s belief that mime was intended for the stage and not for the street. In a street performance, for example, Rudolph’s floating suitcase is a remarkable party trick and a mind-boggling illusion. On stage, however, it blossoms into a piece of physical theater in which the artist explores the way a character might wrestle the forces—both seen and unseen—that frustrate him. Standard fare for a mime, perhaps. But under the lights, the simplest of stories somehow becomes a poignant display of human nature and a commentary on the fragility of joy. Rudolph creates a cathartic experience in which he takes on typical, everyday fears and frustrations, and seems to run them out of town on a rail. And all of this—believe it or not—where the silence is punctuated only by the kids, who are laughing like hyenas.

Mikael Rudolph performs at Intermedia Arts, March 19, 20, 21. Tickets $10 at the door. In the grand tradition of street mime, no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Call (612) 302-9252.