The Arts Beat column in Thursday's Style section incorrectly identified the theme of the Washington Revels' "Christmas Revels" performance this year. It is "Celestial Fools." (Published 12/11/1999)
Many of Mark Jaster's schoolmates from St. Albans or Amherst College are now Capitol Hill types, doctors or scientists. Jaster took a less-traveled road: He decided to make his living as a mime.
Jaster, 44, discovered his calling in high school, where he participated in the St. Albans drama program. "I've always been a real physical actor and that led me toward mime," he says. A good student, he finished his course requirements in time to spend his last semester studying mime in Paris with Etienne Decroux, the master who taught Marcel Marceau. "A whole new artistic vocabulary was opened up to me," says Jaster. "It was like being in Rembrandt's studio if you were a painter. This guy had reinvented mime for the 20th century."
Jaster has a rich, deep speaking voice but opts not to use it, preferring the challenge of entertaining using only his face and body. "Decroux said that the mime needs to have the mind of an actor, the body of an acrobat and the heart of a poet," Jaster says. "I like that."
After graduating from college with a degree in dramatic arts and another year with Decroux in Paris, Jaster wound up settling in Rockville and becoming a company member of the Round House Theatre Company (where this spring he'll make a guest appearance in "The Fantasticks").
But he realized he missed mime after attending a West Virginia festival where he watched mimes perform. He decided to attend Marcel Marceau's summer workshop in Michigan and wound up returning for the next few years as Marceau's assistant. "It was like I was getting the next generation's teaching after Decroux," says Jaster. "If I had the chance to work with Chaplin, too, I'd really have the credentials."
By the mid-'80s, he was working freelance, eventually creating four solo shows that he tours to schools, the Renaissance Festival and other venues. Jaster also works as a member of the Clown Care unit at Children's Hospital, a group that regularly entertains patients, as well as several other small performing ensembles such as the avant-garde Membrane.
"As a mime you can do anything, but you have to do it with nothing. It's just your own limits," says Jaster. "You need an elephant? Okay, you have to start with a bare stage and then you create the image with just your body."
Jaster's schedule over the holidays is often busy, but he usually sets aside time to play a featured role in the Washington Revels, a group of 75 volunteer and professional actors and musicians of all ages. The Revels put on a play where a community celebrates the cyclical renewal of life during the winter solstice, replete with song and dance. Jaster plays one of three fools, Moon. This year's theme--Christmas Revels--is his favorite, for he gets to work with his longtime friends Oran Sandel and Morgan Duncan, who play the other two fools, Sun and Stars. "This is fun because we have a comedy team, sort of like the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges," he says.
Moon is the understated sidekick to the more brash Sun and Stars, yet Jaster makes the role sparkle with his visual gags and imitations of a suckling pig and a turtledove. "I love the Revels," he says. "It talks about the big human issues of time and the cycles of nature. People need that, especially when they live in concrete climate-controlled boxes."
Jaster feels a powerful connection to the family-friendly production for other reasons, too. His wife directed the show for many years before dying of cancer a few years ago, leaving Jaster to care for their three children, now 17, 15 and 8. "The Revels family really circled around," he says. "They brought us meals, they got us a freezer to store them in; they paid visits and consulted on things."
After this last weekend of Revels performances, though, it's back to Jaster's peripatetic lifestyle, with each day presenting a different schedule and character to play. He likes the road he's chosen and so do his children, who have performed with him on several occasions. "I've got such a weird set of skills it doesn't really fit into a corporate structure," he says while applying red eyeliner for his makeup in the Christmas Revels. "I can't really imagine it another way."
The Christmas Revels plays Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW, Friday through Sunday. Tickets are $18-$30. For information call 202-723-7762; for tickets, 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Mime Mark Jaster checks his props before a performance, above, and applies his traditional white masklike makeup.