December 9, 2009

In a Total Swoon Over "Brief Encounter"

I’ve fallen in love.  The object of my affection is the Kneehigh Theatre, a company based in Cornwall, England and the creator of a wonder-filled show called Brief Encounter that opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse last night.  Kneehigh specializes in theater, that, says the New York Times, is driven by “theatrical rather than narrative imagination.” (Click here to read the Times piece about the company) 

The full expression of that imagination is on display in Brief Encounter, an adaptation of David Lean’s classic 1945 movie about two middle-aged married people who meet and fall in love in a British train station. The movie was based on Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life and Kneehigh’s co-artistic director Emma Rice, who adapted and directed the stage version, has incorporated bits of it and other Coward work into this staging of Brief Encounter.  

Rice and her superlative design theme also mix in melodrama, musical hall numbers, video imagery, puppetry and some other spectacular coup d’theatre that I refuse to spoil for you (although you can click here to see a video trailer of the show).  It’s a marvelous blend of the old and the new that combines into a distinctively 21st century form of theater.  The scenic designer Neil Murray, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, projection designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington and sound designer Simon Baker all deserve special shoutouts.

Brief Encounter shares elements with The 39 Steps, the parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller that is scheduled to close on Jan. 10 after some 750 performances on Broadway.  But The 39 Steps is all fast action and funny gags.  Brief Encounter has them too, thanks to a nimble ensemble of seven actors and musicians who assume multiple roles.  But this show also has heart. In the midst of all the hijinks, Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock create meaningful and believable portrayals of the power of love.   

The audience the night my friend Jesse and I went out to the Dumbo section of Brooklyn to see the show was so enchanted that nearly everyone stayed behind for the talkback, lead by the pixieish Rice but attended by the entire cast.  Rice was so entertaining as she described the company’s method of working and some of the things they’d tried during rehearsals but jettisoned (dressing the ill-fated lovers as cats for one scene!) that I found myself wanting to run away with her.

There’s a new academic field called “Liveness Studies” that frets that live events from theater to football games have “become increasingly invaded, contaminated and eroded” by the technologies of TV, the movies and the computer screen
(click here if you want to know more about it).  Maybe. But this version of Brief Encounter, which runs only through Jan. 3, can’t be replicated in any other medium than on a live stage.  You have to be there to experience it. And this theater lover is deeply grateful that I had the chance to do so because this show set my heart aflutter. 

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