Center House Theatre; ends Sat., March 26
You know the annoying guy who's read a particular book and is impossible about how its theatrical adaptation just doesn't get it right? Yeah, well, sorry, but I'm the annoying guy and, argh, Book-It Repertory's attempt at Daphne du Maurier's 1938 gothic thriller doesn't get it right.
The source material should be prime Book-It territory. The story is tailor-made for a company that regularly scores with fevered romantic classics (Jane Eyre, Lady Chatterley's Lover, et al.): A timid young woman is swept off her feet by enigmatic widower Maxim DeWinter, who impulsively marries her and carries her away to Manderley, a sprawling Cornwall estate that seems impenetrably ruled by unyielding housekeeper Mrs. Danvers and, most of all, by the mysterious memory of Maxim's revered first wife, Rebecca.
I knew the jig was up a few seconds in. Playing the wilting second Mrs. DeWinter, Annette Toutonghi utters du Maurier's famous opener—"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"—but little else that follows in the first chapter. For a troupe that prides itself on having a novel's whole text at its disposal, Book-It has made concessions to deadly edits here. Adapter Rachel Atkins has thinned out the novel's thick, somnambulant fervor in favor of hitting the high points, with the result that none of director Jane Jones' high points have anything under them to support their ersatz altitude. By cleaving away crucial passages, including an obsessive description of an unkempt Manderley choked by moss and overgrown tree branches, Atkins has removed all sense that the ensuing story is the rotting recollection of a woman still tormented by a damned past she'll never overcome, a plush, deliberate, waking nightmare.
Dreamy plushness, unfortunately, is not this production's strong suit. Its noisy set pieces, moved around by Manderley's cowed servants, consist mostly of too-heavy door frames on wheels, and Dan Dennis' inappropriately plucky music score sounds like a love letter to Fiddler on the Roof. And while the show does seem to take forever to finish, it's not the kind of deliberation du Maurier might have desired. Though the show enjoys reading between the lines, envisioning Rebecca as some kind of Sapphic succubus, its main aesthetic conceit doesn't work: Making Rebecca (Janet Haley) an actual physical character is a mistake in all but the re- enactment of her death scene; Toutonghi's "haunting" by Maxim's first wife is never more vivid than when, lost in an imagined vision of her, she seems to channel Rebecca for a moment, drowsily crossing her legs in the manner of the woman she can never be. Nearly every one of the novel's big moments is off in an infuriating way. The second Mrs. DeWinter's ultimate humiliation—her shocking appearance in a disastrous costume right before Manderley's big masquerade ball—is played downstage, taking all the fun out of watching Toutonghi crumble and recover.
It's a shame, because Toutonghi does an empathetic job of it. I didn't think she was going to work at first—she's got the sad, comic eyes of a clown, a pixie voice, and she's already used them to hysterically spoof just this kind of role in the Empty Space's In Flagrante Gothicto. But she's quite fetchingly real, with a sweet, quivering alertness at every moment that makes her more an earnest underdog than a mousy caricature.
Amy Thone complements her at every turn as Mrs. Danvers. Avoiding stock villainy, she plays the housekeeper as Rebecca's grief-stricken widow, a commoner whose relationship to her "lady" was the only thing that ever elevated her. She's a woman of immeasurably sour sorrow. There's a great scene in which Thone drops her frosty restraint to tear into the new lady of the house— dropping, too, her careful elocution to reveal the bitter Cockney bitch beneath.
David Quicksall is handsome as Maxim, but he lacks the carriage of a gentleman—he's sometimes frumpier than Toutonghi—and he also doesn't give you the sense that he's carrying around a great emotional burden. His Maxim appears to be irritated by something, but it certainly doesn't appear to be anything anyone would write a gothic romantic thriller about. (But, then, let's be honest: Even Olivier was terrible in the Hitchcock film version—there must be something about having to say lines like, "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!" that prevents a guy from coming off really butch and brooding.)
Without the novel's underlying dread, the evening drags like hell, then perks back up again when Andrew Litzky re-enters as Jack Favell, Rebecca's conniving cousin, the kind of boozy sleaze who'll compare using a woman to wearing out a tire tread. Litzky oozes out every line like he's having a helluva time comparing women to tires; there isn't a drop of any word left after he's done with it. He practically licks his chops when he first meets the new Mrs. DeWinter in Act I, then comes back in Act II for a good, mean drunk and a taste of revenge.
If Rebecca were simply the story of Toutonghi and Thone going mano a mano over a memory, with Litzky as referee, director Jones might have something. But, despite Haley's regal nastiness, the show is missing the most important player: Rebecca herself. The production has only superficial notions of the weight of her presence. It's the ghost of a ghost. STEVE WIECKING
Little Theatre; ends Mon., March 14
Washington Ensemble Theatre's latest production is completely without dialogue, which could have meant all kinds of terrible mime but, lucky for us, instead is a view of the world without words in the way.
The troupe, which developed this piece with director Steve Pearson, goes in and out of four doors onstage—the seven-member ensemble inhabiting all the people busy running, walking, dancing, and playing through 24 hours of a typical day in a typical urban neighborhood. An inspired reworking and update of a 30-year-old play called Tuesday, WET's Next Tuesday is something like a silent, modernized Our Town constantly on the move. There's the ticking of a clock, and each tick finds a familiar face and a recognizable routine: A paperboy whizzes by tossing his wares, backpacked kids head out for a dreary day of school, workers on cell phones hurry toward their offices, uncertain singles meet for awkward dates, lonely old men and women shuffle by in quiet desperation, et al.
The show can be a tad smooth and sleepy and steeped in saccharine self- consciousness, I suppose. It runs at least 20 minutes too long, and its lovers and losers occasionally seem less like 21st-century citizens than the durable stock figures of a World War II–era testament to small-town sweetness; the homeless and elderly are too much the emblems of bittersweet sentiment. And I think Pearson sometimes misses a bet by having everyone play the activity for the cumulative physical effect rather than focusing on the emotional effect of its intimacy. For the most part, the company is deadpan as it goes about its chores—Pearson should have made a consistent decision about whether the performers can laugh or mumble out loud—and seems to want us to be moved solely by its endless parade of humanity.
It's the few expressive examples of private anguish or public joy on the actors' faces, however, that are the most resonant—and some of these actors have faces, all right. A striking bit finds Marya Sea Kaminski as an aged woman in an instant of panic, suddenly seized by the notion that she's old and lost in the crowd. When her visage catches the passing depth and breadth of such a moment, it gives new meaning to the flurry of movement that surrounds it. The smaller the details we're given, the subtler the gesture or glance, the more we realize how much is filling every second of any given day.
Yet the show develops a remarkable rhythm, its door-slamming putting to shame even the hardworking ensemble that breathlessly put Noises Off through its paces at the Seattle Rep this past December. The piece truly does move like clockwork, and never once loses its footing, despite the obvious complexity of its blocking. Matt Starritt's sound design propels the production with an eclectic recorded music score (I might've ixnayed the smooth jazz, but that's just me), and there are some accomplished visual gags: the challenges of FedEx delivery; the perils of carrying a sheet of glass down a busy street; the traffic cop who just can't resist taking the opportunity to get down.
Most importantly, the production is full of life. I wish it would've reached higher and dug deeper to find the unique in the mundane, to truly capture the sometimes revelatory minutiae of getting through a day. But the piece has the kind of kinetic, human energy that gives you a pleasant buzz. It's a terrific family show, and the experience knocks around with you for the rest of the night—you walk out of the theater happily humbled, feeling as though you, too, are just one part of an ever-changing landscape of bodies in motion. STEVE WIECKING