Perhaps among the reasons that theater continues to endure, despite supposedly being in its death throes since about 300 B.C., is the playwrights and directors who, in their productions, keep ramming theater's significance into the popular consciousness and subconsciousness.
One such example is Brief Encounter, director Emma Rice's adaptation of Noël Coward's 1945 screenplay based on his stage play Still Life, and presented by Kneehigh Theatre of Cornwall, England. The show was cause for celebration on Broadway in 2010 and now has finally made it to our coast thanks to Beverly Hills' Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
The other production, a quite different kettle of kitsch, is the new play Villon by Murray Mednick, based on the 15th-century French poet-rogue François Villon, in a production by Padua Playwrights at the Odyssey Theatre.
Still Life is a short yet talky play, as English plays so often were around 1936, when it premiered. David Lean's 1945 film Brief Encounter, employing Coward's screenplay, visually underscores Coward's story of an adulterous dalliance between an otherwise respectable couple through the language of wayward glances. Close-ups on facial expressions reveal subterranean guilty longing, yet the film doesn't betray Coward's verbal erudition, which may be why it now lends the arch impression of a movie from and about an era.
Brief Encounter at the Annenberg is a small story in a large theater. Were Rice's adaptation not so inventive, the theater space would have overwhelmed it. The story of the adultery and the emotional contortions of forbidden passion are accompanied by a band of roving musicians, who croon period ditties (along with Stu Barker's original music) with infectious charm, under Ian Ross' musical direction.
Neil Murray's set helps set the breezy tone with a fairground lightness. There are parallel steel girders on each side of the stage, across which a train station's overpass bridge drops from the sky, for scenes where the couple go their separate ways on separate steam trains. The trains appear via projection and film designers Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington's moving pictures, which are broadcast across the stage. Beneath that platform is a tea and pastry stand, where much of the romance unfolds.
Rice's larger point, however, is not the morality-play story of a series of clandestine liaisons between two married people (Hanna Yelland and Jim Sturgeon) and the costs of that passion on each of them. This is threadbare, dated material in 2014. The larger point is the intersection of cinematic and theatrical technique. Just when they seem at odds, they fuse.
The production opens in a movie house, where the central lovers sit, with us, in the house watching the black-and-white images on the screen. When they go their separate ways, one of them slips into that screen, through the looking-glass, transforming from three dimensions into two, from color into B&W. (Sacred Fools Theatre Company similarly perfected this technique in its staging of Stoneface a couple of years ago, based on the life of Buster Keaton.)
At the moment when we might be seduced by the romantic languor of cinema vérité, clouds whisk across the backdrop, we hear a piercing wind and the ensemble sways in unison like branches in a storm. Scenes in the café play out in the farcical style of commedia (thanks to terrific performances by the ensemble), before ocean waves crash against the backdrop, and we return to the language of romanticism. Kneehigh appears to be a descendant of the Wooster Group, with its scrutiny of the divides between technology, literary contrivance, and what it means to be human. It's an absolutely beguiling production, psychologically simple but stylistically as rich as a tapestry.
Mednick's Villon is similarly entrancing. A troupe of actors is putting on a play, a farce really, about the abused, ruthless eponymous poet (Kevin Weisman, in a pleasingly understated, earnest performance). He's a terrible man prone to violent tantrums, after which he feels bad and composes poetry that stirs the world, and inspires the king to commute his death sentence to banishment from Paris — after which he's never heard from again.
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This is consistent with Mednick's nihilistic views in his series of Gary plays. He keeps making jokes about the end of the world. Here, even poetry is a fraud, and history a series of slaughters. To underscore Mednick's utter lack of confidence in the future, his play keeps making quips about the "teenagers" in the audience, their disconnect from history and the need to keep them entertained. Yet amidst the nihilism emerges the line: "It's the stage that makes it possible to be somebody."
That's sort of true, even if the same might be said of the movies or, God forbid, Facebook. From the long view of this wise, cranky prankster, the theater is a candle flickering in a gale. It's the one oasis in an otherwise desolate landscape.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER | Directed and adapted by Emma Rice | Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills | Through March 23 | (310) 746-4000 | thewallis.org
VILLON | Written and directed by Murray Mednick | Presented by Padua Playwrights at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Through March 23 | (310) 477-2055 | paduaplaywrights.org