April 13, 2010

A Beautiful "Encounter" In Brooklyn


In 1945 the British director David Lean filmed what many consider the classic romance of a wartime era, "Brief Encounter." It was based on a one-act play, "Still Life," written in 1936 by Noel Coward, an actor/playwright who'd become a raconteur, singer and nightclub entertainer of the first order. All of Coward's one-actors were written to be performed by himself and his stage partner, Gertrude Lawrence. The screen version, "Brief Encounter" starred a very young Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both of whom would create long and distinguished careers.


Filmed in Carnforth Station in northern England, it's the unfolding romance between a young married woman and a handsome married doctor who meet in a chance encounter, are drawn to each other, reunite in walks, movies and long conversations over tea, fall in love and then part when the doctor takes a job in a far distant land. Then as now, the fears and uncertainties of a world at war lend a certain dramatic permissiveness to their affair.


Last year England's Kneehigh Theatre and its joint artistic director, Emma Rice, in partnership with Cineworld, a premiere English film exhibitor, adapted and presented a staged "cinematic" version of the original film. Scenes from the British production are shown in the video. As you can begin to sense, the staged work re-creates scenes from the film using its own present-day cast, who then interact with their filmic selves. In several instances, live characters "walk into" a scrim image that parts, instantly revealing themselves up in their onscreen counterparts. It's an amazing concept, almost a magic illusion, and it earned Rice a nomination for the 2009 Olivier Award for best director (as well as nominations for her two projection designers, Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington).


The West End production of "Brief Encounter" has now arrived at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, one of America's avant-garde showcases, for a limited run through January 3. You will want to move heaven and earth to get a ticket. Tristan Sturrock, seen in the video, returns as the doctor Alec, as do most of the supporting players, but the lovely and radiantly sublime Hannah Yelland is his new lover, leading an absolutely knockout company. This "Brief Encounter" isn't just what Rice calls a story of a "micro-marriage," either. It's a musical, constantly informed and updated with Coward's songs and influences, and it has an English music hall sensibility that's often as rowdy and sassy as it is subtle and emotionally moving.


There's a group of singer/musicians who'll serenade you from the moment you walk into the cavernous St. Ann's lobby, instantly establishing a rapport and a playback to 40s tunes and standards. They all turn up in a multitude of roles onstage, using mime, puppetry, instant changes of costumes, and a wagonload of ingenious props to make this production a constant and often jaw-dropping surprise. Screens come and go, bridges rise and descend, the stage is a whirlwind of stiff-upper-lip mischief not unlike the current Broadway "39 Steps" which has been delighting audiences for several years.


This one only has a run of several weeks. A preview ticket in the third row cost $30, which makes "Brief Encounter" not only the best holiday bargain in New York Theater, but maybe the best holiday gift in New York City.


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