theater (reviews)

review: pantomime

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-PANTOMIME.html]

PANTOMIME

by Derek Walcott
Directed by Jonathan Wilson
Pegasus Players in the O’Roarke Center at Truman College
1145 West Wilson Avenue / (773) 878-9761
www.pegasusplayers.org
Through October 22, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 13, 2006

This two-hander takes place in “no time” but references to World War II war duty could place the action anytime from the 1950s to the present. Harry Trewe (Kipp Moorman), a white British man, and Jackson Phillip (André Teamer), a black man who may be from the tropics or may be from somewhere else, live at an island tourist hotel that features guest services and entertainment. Both characters have great humor and anger in equal parts. Their characters’ shifting and reading of dialogue and taking on different roles, sometimes calmly, sometimes belligerently, suggest the two men may have roles in a larger game. Are they merely preparing for upcoming “panto” (pantomime) performances for the tourist hordes, or are they pressing each other’s emotional buttons to aggravate, agitate, entertain themselves for some other purpose? Are these men both perfectly sane? The answers to these questions are delightfully unclear by the end of the well written and exquisitely acted evening.

If you expect actors in black clothes, in white face and miming broad gestures or suggesting a box in space, think again. This is pantomime as a riff on life, a commentary on a story with occasional segues into song, dance, and stage fighting. This is a story of theatre, of the interdependence of two characters, and it is a story of attempting to escape one’s past. Three other dramatic works, first plays then movies, are powerfully evoked while watching this performance. First, Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” set at a tropical tourist hotel, with both a dissipated ex-pat hotel manager and the descending tourists. Second, Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser” (and also his recent lovely film “Being Julia”) that looks at the key backstage supporting role of a personal servant to a great actor in decline. Finally, Harold Pinter’s “The Servant” and its look at class relations through the morphing relations between an Oxford bachelor and his manservant. All of these themes are delightfully present, yet are given new and unexpected twists in Derek Walcott‘s work. Is this an existential no-man’s land or a realistically set play? Harry at one point, in describing the sequence of “roles” he has played in life (actor, father, husband, soldier) says of his current role “If the new script I’ve been handed says Harry Trewe hotel manager, then I’m going to play Harry Trewe hotel manager to the hilt.” We are left wondering: how much of his current behavior is merely a role? The answer to this question is delightfully obscure, depending upon the literal or allegorical bent of an audience member’s mind

The fictional story of shipwrecked British citizen Robinson Crusoe and his native manservant “Friday” is referenced through the play, as part of the show the men are preparing and perhaps as proxy for working the characters’ relationship with one another. The men debate whether white Harry should play Friday and black Jackson should play Robinson Crusoe, to shake things up. Each of the characters gets more intensely into his acting worlds at different times during the morning and afternoon we spend with them. And both we and the characters forget at times when Harry and Jackson are “in character” or when lines are crossed emotionally, dramatically, thematically, personally. Harry repeatedly reminds Jackson “Its pantomime, Jackson. Keep it light. Improvise.” And the characters move into unexpected and powerful places. Jackson brings to this character of “Friday” a 20th (or 21st) century sensibility. He notes to Harry that “in that sun that never sets on your empire, I was your shadow”, then repeats poetically, rhetorically, oratorically , the words servants have used to refer to their masters including “Boss” and “Bwana” and a string of others. In the first act, discussion of race relations focuses primarily on which of the two actors might play Robinson Crusoe. In the second act, the dialogue between the characters and their roles becomes more intensely provocative, with Harry suddenly referring to Jackson as “boy”.

These two actors, as directed by Jonathan Wilson, provide expert versions of scripted and perhaps occasionally unscripted theatre games, improvising a play, hinting at musical hall traditions. About 45 minutes in, Harry feels as if the games have gotten too extreme and appears to want to stop them; Jackson insists that he leaves no job undone. Harry presses throughout to keep the pantomime light, noting to Jackson, “If we take this seriously, we might commit art. We’ll make people think too much.” He continues, “what we would have on our hands would be a play, not a pantomime” and that, apparently, would be too threatening to this complicated and wounded character.

After intermission we discover why Harry, the old song and dance man, has isolated himself at a remote cliff top tropical tourist hotel. Personal facts are introduced to the story slowly, piecemeal, and incompletely. Harry’s journey is to come to terms with his past while Jackson plays the persistent provocateur. He notes sympathetically to Harry about life in a hotel “Its lonely here out of season” (suggesting a powerful sentiment like “Another Winter in a Summer Town”, in the new Hampton based musical “Grey Gardens”). In one emotionally draining sequence for the characters, Jackson presses Harry to reconcile himself with a piece of his past, with a prop that perfectly resonates with the pantomime framework and metaphorical frame for the adventure.

The set by Timothy Mann is suggestive of a dilapidated tropical retreat with an impressionistically painted sky, yet is also delightfully concrete with a house and grass and porch and Adirondack chairs. The lighting by Denise Karczewski is clean; the sound design by is functional and occasionally surprising. This is a world worth visiting with these characters. This is fine writing and fine directing and lovely acting.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 13, 2006)

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