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


by Tom Stoppard
Directed by James Bohnen
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theatre
2257 North Lincoln Avenue / (773) 244-8119
Through January 7, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 19, 2006

Remy Bumppo‘s production of “The Real Thing“, directed by James Bohnen takes us into 1982 London and intertwined artistic lives considering the importance of words and art and love and each other. As with many Stoppard plays, your first instinct is to map the action as time goes on. Before you give yourself over to “Stoppard time” and the Stoppard way of story telling, you ask yourself: does this scene follow the previous scene precisely, sequentially? And the fact that our main character, we soon learn, is a playwright opens up additional possibilities for each scenes as it begins: is it “real” or is this a scene being played by our characters as actors in several plays within our play? Soon we no longer overanalyze in the moment, the ride takes over, and with this play and this production, that ride is well worth your time. At one point a character comments on this layered reality in which all theatre artists live: “That’s the different between plays and real life – thinking time.” Love that. And you’ll love this production.

Sound design by Victoria DeIorio is delightful as always, either exquisitely executing the specific requirements as laid out by Stoppard, or designing beautifully to augment and illustrate words and action that are tightly intertwined with textual musical allusions. I have just returned from London where I saw Stoppard’s “Rock and Roll” in its current inaugural West End, in which he uses different popular music from the same time period in an entirely different repressed political context: music and expressing the desire for freedom of an entire generation and a culture, in the 1960s in Eastern Europe and several decades later. In this current stunning revival of Stoppard’s 1982 play, music has a gentler yet entirely as insistent role to play: as memory, and character expression of innermost feelings, as a call to a gentler time for the main character. As a character itself. Properties designer Ross Moreno has stocked the stage and the hands of the characters with just the right albums in their cardboard sleeves, providing that little rush of familiarity to those in the audience who recognize the cover art as I did, who also loved this music from another time, in this form: “Don’t know much about history … ” we’d sing, and bop to “You Better Shop Around”. This music from the 1960s (and earlier?) sets the tone for this 1982 play. We immediately ask: will retro tastes of our main character be part of the story? Will one or more of the characters be frozen in a prior era?

Henry (Nick Sandys), our playwright, is the music fan and a self-styled pundit. Charlotte Anne Fogarty, his solid and long-suffering wife early in the play and a frequent (we guess) actress in Henry’s plays says of him that “he thinks that he has a sense of humor – what he has is a joke reflex.” Max (Sean Fortunato), actor and husband of another actress Annie (Linda Gillum) we soon meet, comments on reality in a surprisingly concise way “That’s what life’s about – messy bits of good and bad luck”. Right! And events and emotions mix these characters lightly as the Act proceeds, providing us several considerations over what, and who, is the “real thing”.

Act 2 provides some resolutions and many additional questions. We have been introduced to a young man Brodie (Keith Gallagher) with a political ax to grind, who Annie believes has a play worth something, and that Henry ought to assist in this playwright task. As a sub theme, “what is art” emerges here. Annie makes the case to Henry, who bemoans the lack of fluency in Brodie’s writing, that Brodie needs to get his message out there. “He’s not writing to compete” she says, “he’s writing to be heard.” For Henry, the message coalesces around this: there is a difference and there is a need to protect art. Henry provides a beautiful piece of stage business and language as he describes the artistry of great writing, involving a cricket bat. This scene alone would be worth the price of admission to this production. Henry notes about Brodie that “he’s a lout with language” and that “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are.” Yes.

Stoppard’s choice to have his characters be actors and playwrights allows for other allusions that can be analyzed or simply allowed to fade away. Plays that characters are reading or studying throughout the action of our “real” story include “Miss Julie” and “Tis A Pity She’s A Whore”. This is a play about considering the real thing — the real performance, what’s really important, what’s illusion and what is worth fighting for. And yes, what is sacred. To Henry, words themselves are sacred, and its hard to disagree. In a late scene between Henry the playwright and his young adult daughter Debbie, he outlines a final “real thing” about love: it’s about “knowing and being known”.

Efficient modular stage design by Tim Morrison provides multiple playing spaces, and “play within a play” locations that are both upstage and down stage (and “up” and “down”, that may or may not have thematic resonance). Stage dressing by Ross Moreno is modernist, in the line of today’s low-priced Swedish superstores, but in the 1982 of this play, furnishings in this style would have been the height of modernist design, not quite yet for the masses, and would have been seen as very cool and not as ubiquitously available.

A lovely production, with lovely performances, that will resonate for days.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 19, 2006)

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