Venerable plays get made into acclaimed movies (August: Osage County of recent note), and some movies translate successfully to the stage. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that famous amalgam of film, live theater and audience participation that eventually morphed its way into The Rocky Horror Show.
But now for something completely different: Take a 1930s Noel Coward one-act play that he reinvented in 1948 as a film, mix equal parts cornball and courage, blend projections, stagecraft and follies, and bam! You get the British import Brief Encounter, playing for just two weeks at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s
This escapist, eclectic comedy from the Cornish troupe Kneehigh meshes film clips, live theater and patron complicity as never before. The actors greet you in the lobby beforehand — minstrel musicians dressed as cheeky ushers playing the banjo, ukulele, stand-up bass and, yay, SPOONS — and they carry their jazzy street jive into the theater. Melodramatic matinee idols leap from the house seats onto the stage and literally through the silver screen, breaking down not only the fourth wall but any precepts that we aren’t also the guilty party. And that’s only the start of some hanging-from-the-chandeliers fun.
It’s Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo meets Once meets British burlesque.
Hannah Yelland spuriously, scoldingly, scathingly reprises her 2011 Tony-nominated role as Laura, a neglected and bored housewife who drifts into the arms of the debonair, idealistic Dr. Alec Harvey (breathtaking Jim Sturgeon) at a train-depot tea shop. She gets a piece of dust (stardust?) in her eye, and he steps in to rescue the damsel – conveniently, his medical specialty is studying the effects of dust in the body. Their affair is fated, foolish and fleeting, with plenty of train imagery and ocean surf to drill it home.
Adapter-Director Emma Rice is unapologetic in mixing styles, tone and art forms, from puppetry to film noir. Somehow it all works seamlessly, like a collage for the lovelorn. She examines the choices we make that bind and release us, recidivist Houdinis getting tangled up but left dangling alone to sort it out. Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth deepens the blush and dampens the blues, while Projection/Film Designers Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll turn a backdrop into an inner monologue that both frames and intensifies the emotion.
The six musicians/ensemble players provide glue and giggles, manipulating our lovers like marionettes and giving voice to their muted passions via their own wild couplings and vaudevillian shtick. Damon Daunno (Stanley) spreads his dulcet gifts like a bursting piñata, and Dorothy Atkinson (Beryl) is the consummate chameleon comedienne. Her “Mad About the Boy” love scene with a stand-up bass makes an indelible mark. Joe Alessi (Fred/Albert) blithely moves from stuffy husband to unstuffed sex toy, while the leggy Annette McLaughlin (Myrtle) serves up endless steam and hot buns.
The use of music by Ian Ross, both live and enhanced, blends the classic troubadour spirit with a lush, cinematic, heartstrings-pulling soundtrack. This is layered storytelling that cuts like a knife, especially when Laura dives into her deafening, defining Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. Though the lovers rarely remove their coats, a scene in which they must wring out wet garments and put them back on is like a tantalizing, tingling reverse strip tease.
You, too, will flip for this frothy, fiery, fast-track romance that feels maddeningly brief.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.
Brief Encounter plays through April 13, 2014 at Lansburgh Theatre at Shakespeare Theatre Company – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122 or purchase them online.