By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jeff Steitzer
ACT Theatre
700 Union St. Seattle, WA / 206-292-7676

Reviewed by Christopher Comte

Tom Stoppard's 1972 metaphysical farce "Jumpers" is one of those plays that is so full of philosophical ruminations, esoteric wordplay and peculiarly British wit, that by intermission one's brain tends to feel as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey. While this early work represents an ambitious effort by Stoppard to meld both physical and linguistic gymnastics, had it been penned by any less of a theatrical luminary it might have been dismissed as pseudo intellectual blathering. But, because it is Stoppard, and because we have come to expect such dense verbal and metaphysical exercises from him, we do our best to follow along, all the while feeling a bit sheepish if we can seldom make heads-or-tails of what he's saying.

"Jumpers" has been variously characterized as "an intellectual burlesque", "a sublime comedy", "a witty, surreal riff on God and morality", and while it may indeed be all these things, in fact it is less of a comedy in the traditional sense than a sophisticated examination of the absurdity of attempting to know the unknowable, whether we're discerning the existence of God or contemplating the human heart. Throughout the play, Stoppard continually toys with our expectations of what we know (or think we know), in the process taking a left-hand turn from our familiar reality to point out the stickier ambiguities involved in understanding ourselves and our relationships to others. In this world, academics double as a acrobats (the eponymously named "jumpers" of the title), entertaining "Radical Liberal Party" proles bent on assimilating all religious institutions and incarcerating real-estate speculators, while a quarter of a million miles away, a pair of British astronauts attempt -- with decidedly mixed results - to extend English imperialism to the lunar surface. By injecting his characters into this historically revisionist setting, Stoppard puts his audience off-balance, then uses the tension created by our innate desire for stability and certainty in a world of continuously changing realities to send both his characters and his audience on an anarchic, Pythonesque rollercoaster ride of intellectual and emotional turmoil, culminating in an "Alice In Wonderland" inspired mock trial involving Tarzan, The Ape Man, one of the aforementioned moonwalkers, and The Archbishop of Canterbury.

ACT Theatre's production, helmed by veteran Seattle actor/director Jeff Steitzer does a credible job of realizing both the comedic possibilities of the work, as well as offering up performances fully able to handle the play's wild physical and linguistic contortions. If it seems to not quite achieve the heights to which it aspires, it appears to be less the fault of their efforts, than it may be to our exertions in keeping up with Stoppard's dense verbiage and convoluted philosophical investigations. In this regard, one might wish for a somewhat slower pace, but Steitzer recognizes the detrimental effect this would have on the comedy (always integral to Stoppard's purpose), and instead wisely relies on his cast's ability to effectively interpret the text in the headier passages. The result is that, while the cerebral gyrations of the script are given something of a rush-through, there is more of a sense of balance between this, the freewheeling satire, and the more somber depiction of a marriage on the brink of dissolution.

As with most of Stoppard's works, plot generally takes a back seat to his expressions of verbal virtuosity, and "Jumpers" is certainly no exception. George Moore (David Pichette) an addle-brained "moral philosopher" spends his evening composing a rationalization for the existence of God as a predicate to moral absolutism, while in an adjacent room a cabal of his yellow-spandex clad academic colleagues (all of whom subscribe to a contrasting "if it feels good, do it" moral relativisim) tumble and cavort for the victorious RLP luminaries, while his ex-stage star wife Dotty (Erica Rolfsrud) proves decidedly less adept in terms of reciting the lyrics to her beloved romantic standards. Despondent over how the lunar landing has forever eradicated any sense of mystery or romance from the moon, she seeks solace from George's Department Chair, Archie Jumper (R. Hamilton Wright), a supercillious therapist with a veritable alphabet soup of academic credentials appending his name. Meanwhile, George's chief rival among the acrobats is shot dead during their human pyramid finale, leaving Dotty and Archie to deal with the body before the inevitable arrival of an obtuse, celebrity-worshiping Scotland Yard inspector (John Patrick Lowrie).

As the anachronistic, ivory-tower academic George, Pichette gives a tour-de-force performance that gleefully skips along the tightrope separating his character's intellectual insightfulness from his conjugal obliviousness, in the end tearing apart the stereotype of the "absent-minded professor", and giving George an all-too-human frailty as he struggles to reconcile his long-cherished beliefs against a world that is so clearly indifferent to his seemingly outdated moral point-of-view. As George's nervous wreck of a wife, Rolsrud has the more problematic task of establishing the emotional counterpoint to Pichette's questing intellecualism, and while not quite consistently on his level, she nevertheless sustains Dotty's teetering borderline depression, swinging between whistful romanticism and cynical venery with equal abandon. Together, they just barely miss fully communicating the emotional isolation that has inexorably pushed them apart, to the point where the effect on the audience is more of nostalgia than sadness at their inability to understand each other. Wright, always a stalwart, revels in Archie's smug, patrician demeanor, deliciously deflecting each of George's argumentative thrusts with a withering parry that further opens the wound every time he lets fly with yet another area of expertise from his seemingly bottomless bag of academic degrees. Lowrie brings a nicely contrasting low-brow quality to the role of the star-struck cop, which especially plays well against Wright's suave urbanity, as they vye for Dotty's attention.

Scenic Designer Mathhew Smucker has created a subtly fractured set of irregularly sized panels for George's cluttered study, offset against the soft pastels of Dotty's plushly furnished bedroom. Likewise, costumes by Marcia Dixcy Jory give a nice sense of early '70's British fashion, from Archie's Saville Row pinstripes and Dotty's elegant formalwear, to a reasonable facsimile of a NASA moonsuit. And special credit must go to Tumbling Choreographer Robert Macdougall in assembled a startingly limber group of acrobats, without whose antics "Jumpers" would merely provide audiences with an extremely challenging evening of intellectual discourse.

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