Thursday, December 30, 2010

Going Fast: 'If That's All There Is' & 'Haunted'

Lucinka Eisler, above, as Frances Hayes, who may or may not want to get married in “If That’s All There Is.” Photo by Ed Collier.

BY TAMARA BECK

TRULY
experimental theater in a jewel of a production by the young London company that calls itself Inspector Sands, “If That’s All There Is” won the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Prize in 2009.

It is part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, a monthlong series of award-winning British productions brought to New York for the past seven years by 59E59 Theaters. On the mainstage at 59E59 and part of the same festival is Edna O’Brien’s poignant fairytale of domestic life, “Haunted.”

Hurry, the festival shutters on 2 Jan.

"If That's All There Is," opens with Frances (Lucinka Eisler) and Daniel (Ben Lewis) sitting on the open, curtainless stage exchanging loving glances and welcoming the incoming audience members as if they are guests at their wedding. Once the lights dim, Daniel rises to make his wedding toasts. The simple set serves as wedding chamber, the couple’s apartment, Frances’ office and the office of a character only identified as Therapist (Giulia Innocenti). Daniel visits her when Frances’ behavior mystifies and confuses him.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the scene shifts to a flashback before the wedding. Frances’ ambiguity about her fiancé and over their wedding leads her to act strangely. Her bizarre behavior includes disguising herself in blonde wig and dark glasses to rob a dress on her lunch hour, as well as furtively eating cake from the drawer of her office desk. Daniel, on the other hand, is all organization; he has made flow charts, analyzing the age and relationship status of the wedding guests. As sincere and tightly-wound as he is, Daniel too, will get to unravel – but under the care and guidance of skeptical Therapist.

Among the many charms of “If That’s All There Is” are its drollness and knack for understatement. The actors are expert at subtle slapstick. Costume changes are made on stage with an almost Marx Brothers agility. The actors also move their own props and the furniture around to create a marvelous chaos. The use of multimedia comes with a twist in this funny and heartwarming theatrical pageant. For instance, videos are presented as if they are slide shows at a business conference.

Superb acting is the standard for Inspector Sands, but GI clearly stands out; she is playing dual roles in the cast of three – as the diffident and awkward Christina, an intern in Frances’ office, and as confident and self-assured Therapist.

The company is credited with creating the action and dialog – the entire theatrical production. All three actors are collaborators as Joint Artistic Directors of Inspector Sands.

Oh yes, and there is music – including Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and the nearly eponymous track by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, also sung by PL.

Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy in a happy embrace as Gladys and Jack Berry in “Haunted.” Photo by Jonathan Keenan.

“If That’s All There Is” provides a zany take on expectations, while “Haunted” offers a captivating, if disquieting, look at marital disappointments and rekindled desires. It originated in Manchester, England in 2009 at the Royal Exchange Theatre. “Haunted,” directed by Braham Murray, is a much more traditional play but it is far from conventional.

Jack Berry (Niall Buggy) is a pensioner who, in his infatuation, has anticipated his wife’s death. He has begun giving away her wardrobe to pretty young Hazel (Beth Cooke), who drops by his flat looking to buy garments on the recommendation of the proprietor of a secondhand shop. Gladys Berry (Brenda Blethyn) comes home from work and notices the absence of her blue angora cardigan. Gladys is not above yelling at this latest indignity.

BB’s stalwart factory-working wife has no illusions about Jack, whose philandering and grandiosity have caused rifts in their marriage before. Her Gladys displays a supple range of emotions: wronged and loving, determined and earthy, fierce and tender. Gladys shares her feelings freely, and BB’s performance embraces them all magnificently. BB is the “name” in this cast, having numerous accolades to her credit, including an Order of the British Empire and Oscar nominations.

BC gives her knowing innocent and the object of Jack’s affections, Hazel, a delicate quality. She is Ophelia to his Lear.

It is Jack’s story however, and NB’s telling is extraordinary. He, and his alter ego, Quincy, spout poetry and recite the Bard. He is enthralled, enraged, and caught up in a web of chivalry. His chivalry, however, is cavalier and cruel toward the wife he still loves but sometimes can’t abide. Gladys is as much a romantic as her husband, but Jack is more deceitful and whimsical. NB creates a mercurial character, both hopeful and disenchanted.

Visit http://www.59e59.org/ to learn more about “If That’s All There Is” and “Haunted.”

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