As part of the Guthrie Theater WorldStage Series, Emma Rice's dazzling adaptation of the Noël Coward play comes to Minneapolis from the Kneehigh Theatre in the United Kingdom. The production combines several visual and aural elements that create an utterly unique show. There is singing, and dancing, film projections, special effects, rigging, puppets and somewhere in there, theater in a pure and raw form that adequately illustrates the power of the most conflicting human emotion, love. Indeed, what we see on display is truly a celebration of love, even though the main two characters are trapped in a hopeless situation because they fall in love while married to others. However, this rarely feels like a drama. There are other couples that find love in the play; there is plenty of playfulness and comedy, and in the end, the overall sentiment is rather optimistic.
The cast is quite uniform in their execution, and they all perform at a very high level. It is tremendously impressive how they all navigate between saying their lines, singing, playing instruments, and dancing. In fact, the entire play becomes a well-choreographed dance of love. Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Milo Twomey) begin their performance in the audience-this is a love story about everyday people after all. They have good chemistry, but they are upstaged by another couple. Joseph Alessi and Annette McLaughlin are funny, unpredictable, absolutely wild, and not to mention sexy. Their central, dancing scene takes place in front of the dropped curtain, as she stumbles around wearing one heel, and he gyrates provocatively. Stuart Mcloughlin accompanies them with a song, and he does a tremendous job singing on more than one occasion. The aural aspect of the play is extremely prominent (at one point, the lights even go out completely, as Alec sings, so we only get the sonic effect, no visual), as designed by Simon Baker, and supported by the original music by Stu Barker. Finally, Beverly Rudd, as Beryl and others, steals the show on the comedic side. She is vivacious and uninhibited. She excels at physical comedy, which really borders slapstick.
However, maybe the most fascinating aspect of this particular staging is the variety of set-ups that actually generate multiple stages. Thanks to Neil Murray's inspired stage design not only are there different diegetical levels spanning from the foreground to the background, but we also have separate levels vertically. The characters move back and forth between stages, acting in front of the curtain, on a screen that drops behind the curtain, on the actual stage behind the screen, and yet on another screen farthest in the background. The characters also move from the ground level to a second level, on a suspended bridge. In one particularly spectacular moment, in order to project the power of her love, Laura literally floats between these levels, and hangs in the air. The many multimedia elements and stages are fairly unorthodox for a play, but it is all connected, and it works brilliantly. The production as a whole is highly entertaining, and it really entices the audience, who, on more than one occasion, burst into spontaneous applause.
All of the other stage components run smoothly, which render the production rather complete. Malcolm Rippeth's lighting design is perfectly on point; in fact, the lights help generate additional, smaller stages, as characters are isolated in various areas of the stage. Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll's projection design has to juggle a multitude of screens, including improvised ones, like a large sheet that runs through the stage and doubles up as a train. Moreover, the characters move between the physical reality of the audience, to the "reality" of the play on the stage, and then onto the virtual reality on the screens. Laura actually jumps into the screen; for a brief moment, she goes from three dimensional and color, to two-dimensional and black and white. And that is exactly what is fabulous about Brief Encounter: it is not only Laura and Alec's brief encounter; it is also that between the audience and the actors, that between singing and acting, and ultimately that between film and theater. It is a series of brief encounters that produce marvelous entertainment.
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