Eddie Izzard fast and funny in the flesh

by Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic
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Fan photo courtesy of Jean (I think...if not, email me)

He's never played Seattle before. His reputation in America rests largely on some New York appearances and a few national TV spots, including a made-for-cable special ("Dress to Kill").

All the same, British comic and actor Eddie Izzard has many ardent fans in these parts. And they've snapped up all but a few of the tickets for Izzard's highly anticipated debut engagement here at A Contemporary Theatre, raring to see if the bloke is as fast and funny in the flesh as he is on the tube.

At last night's opening, he didn't disappoint them.

The casual-seeming Izzard dressed down for the occasion, in black shirt and jeans - just a slash of crimson lipstick, glossy nail polish, and a pair of stiletto-heeled women's boots indicating he's a proud transvestite, a subject he discusses openly.

But clothes are largely irrelevant in Izzard's world-touring show "Circle," a rapid-fire, interactive monologue that covers a lot of ground in two hours - roughly, the prehistoric era of giant reptiles to the present.

Though this sort of virtuoso monologue inevitably flags at times, Izzard's act is generally smart, refreshing, profane and, at its best, exhilarating, because it's about neat stuff that's bigger than all of us and our puny banalities.

Last night Izzard's partly improvised proceedings began with intense questioning of the audience about why this place is called Washington (there were assorted answers), and zig-zagged on to an uproarious bit about God creating dinosaurs ("in the image of His cousin, Ted"), reflections on national hatreds (the French don't hate the English, "because they can't be bothered"), and an explanation of why Socrates was probably a real pain in the neck ("Questions, all those questions!").

With laser comic vision, Izzard can spot and enlarge an absurdity on the historical panorama with the acuity of a high-powered telescope. In one breathless stretch, he neatly subverts the motto of American gun advocates ("It's not guns that kill people, but people") by riffing on the possibilities of monkeys wielding AK-47's. In another, he ponders the overuse of the word "awesome." (It should be applied to the wonders of the galaxy, not to "awesome hot dogs.")

It's not the written material alone that accounts for Izzard's panache. As a postmodern street performer on the competitive walkways of London, he clearly learned how to work a crowd into his act and maintain a running commentary/scorecard on their response to his show.

Like Lenny Bruce (whom Izzard has portrayed in a play and often been compared to), he's also a supple, spot-on mimic. He does a flawless imitation of actor James Mason (as God), and can vamp through the entire European Union of accents (Spanish, French, German, et al). A bigger problem at times is deciphering his own lightning-quick, semi-mumbled speech.

Unlike Bruce and most current comics, Izzard isn't lewd. But he can't resist scoring with a "Stoner Olympics" bit, about athletes slowed down to a crawl by drink and grass. And he's least inspired when taking heartfelt but blunt shots at such political targets as Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet.

Izzard excels most as a surrealist maestro of historical and scientific trivia, who subversively admits he gets his tidbits of knowledge from watching TV. So do most of us, of course. It's just that Izzard knows how to spin, recycle and hang out to dry those tidbits with rare hilarity.