By Michael Frayn


By David Gilman
Directed by Timothy Kelley
Spiral Stage, Dedham MA, through August 15th

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton


A shiny new company is taking its bow in the Boston area.  Spiral Stage is "in residence" at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, making summer use of the school's well equipped and comfortable 200 - 500 seat theatre.  The artistic director of Spiral, Timothy Kelley, has been director of the Noble and Greenough Performing Arts Department, and the core of the new company consists of talented young professionals who are graduates of his program plus some skillful mid career directors/designers/techies who are employed by it.  The level of support for the performing arts available in a top rank private school like Noble's is mind boggling when compared to the art starved conditions in the public schools of the past two decades, and this support has extended to generous funding of Kelley's ambitious venture.  The Boston area is lacking in midsize Equity houses able to stage new or challenging work, which is exactly the niche Kelley sees the Spiral Stage growing to fill within the next couple of seasons: artists and audiences growing together.  Theatre lovers can only wish them well.

The season opener, "Noises Off", proved a bit beyond the company's reach.  The most basic requirement of this sort of backstage comedy is for the performers to be able to appear as if they are NOT "acting" when they are in the frame play, and NOT appear to be miscast when performing the characters they play in the play-within-the-play: in this case, a brainless British sex farce called "Nothing On".  The easiest way to accomplish this is to cast experienced actors to type for the frame, and then have those actors create a quite different but plausible on-stage character for the play-within-the-play,  layering  the comic business of bad acting and desperate ad libs and cover-ups on top of that secure foundation.   The part of Bottom, the young working class ham with a bit of talent and a bushel of ego, always goes to the best natural comedian in the company of "Midsummer Niight's Dream", a fellow who need only walk on stage to evoke laughter. Only an actor who is a verse speaker of the  first rank can carry off the virtuoso bit part of the Player King in "Hamlet".  (Shakespeare's company must have had talent to burn.) If even more layers yet are needed to make the conceptual contraption work-- a particular foreign accent, a generation of age in one direction or another, pratfalls, aerial ballet, sexual charisma-- the level of skill required goes up exponentially, eventually reaching the point where only a handful of geniuses in the entire world can juggle all those balls at the same time.  Those few astonishing performances are the stuff of legend and idol worship, and it isn't surprising that none of them made an appearance on the Spiral's stage during "Noises Off".

The parts with the fewest balls to keep in the air came off best in Kelley's production of Frayn's farce.  The high school apprentice who shared the role of Poppy, the assistant stage manager, with four other apprentices, was among the more effective performers in the cast.  Poppy had three challenges: 1) to appear NOT to be an actor, but an over stressed techie with an impossible job to do;  2) to deliver announcements over a microphone in a plummy "radio" voice different from her ordinary non theatrical one; and 3) to appear to be smitten with the director of the play-within and jealous of his actress girlfriend.  All three this Poppy accomplished with aplomb, and I rather suspect that her 3 fellow apprentices were OK in the role, too. Kaarina Aufranc had in the ingenue role of Brook Ashton a part sufficiently close to her own situation as an attractive young actress relatively inexperienced in British farce; consequently  only a few moments of hysteria caused her to drop one of her juggling balls.  Barret O'Brien had some nicely droll bits as an American actor nonplused by the folkways of  the locals. Benjamin Davis filled the role of Lloyd, a randy fortyish intellectual of a British director gently condescending to the cast of the regional tryout of a West end farce-- filled it so well that I actually developed a little crush on him, and was shocked to discover from his bio that Davis graduated from high school at about the same time as my youngest stepson.  However, before Davis can be declared several levels of talent above his fellow Spiraleans, it must be noted  that this actor had far fewer balls to keep going at once than those who had roles in the performances of  "Nothing On" as well as in the backstage shenanigans of "Noises Off".   These people coped with masses of props and pratfalls and split second changes efficiently, and they had plenty of bright ideas about the behavior of their characters, even if they couldn't make that behavior credible.  Some later day, or some other show, they may do all that and manage to be funny, too.

Spiral's second production is the New England premiere of David Gilman's very British play about game theory, "The Ghost in the Machine".  The play is an intellectual puzzler about American academics, with an implied Q.E.D. about the Vietnam war.  Although the genre is known to American audiences mainly through the occasional British examples that make it across the Atlantic, the issues and theories it explores are familiar to readers of the New York Times and the clientele of private schools like Noble's.  Matt (Barret O'Brien) a musicologist, has been studying the work of a young multicultural composer of electronic music, Minh Schumann. With the help of his game theorist girlfriend Kim (Kaarina Aufranc), Matt has discovered a randomly generated sequence in a Schumann  composition that corresponds note for note to the melody in the 15th century chorale "A Mighty Fortress...".  Matt and Kim are at Harvard to deliver a paper on this discovery and are staying as houseguests with Matt's old friend Nancy (Gail Reitter) and her professor husband, Wes (Mark Waldstein).   When Wes discovers $50 missing from his wallet, he decides that Kim has stolen it and responds in a way that begins a series of moves and responses that resemble a zeros game like chess.  The response to Matt's Harvard presentation similarly takes the form of a hostile confrontation: the chorale melody could only appear in a random sequence through fraud, the establishment decides: the question is, is it Schumann, Matt, or Kim who is to be held responsible and punished?

Though I'm often dazzled, delighted and convinced by Stoppard or Wertenbaker,  I was not persuaded by the ordered system of analogies that constitute Gilman's play.   I was impressed that the playwright had done his theoretical homework. But  I felt no emotional complicity in the human actions that were explored, no compelling significance in the hypotheses either of coincidence or design.  No matter?  Never mind.  Still, the Spiral cast made a good case for it, fleshing the characters out with credible quirks and complex motivations.  The game of the play is certainly fascinating as it is unfolding, move and counter move, and it also provides for some brilliant speculation amongst the audience afterwards.  Set designer Martin Bridge, who provided the spectacular turntable on-and-back stage setting for "Noises", puts "Ghost" in front of a lacy ice mountain that somehow interiorized projections to serve as yet another set of visual metaphors, while costumer Virginia Aldous, whose playfully realistic clothes for "Noises" were perfection, here puts the players in black and white garments whose changes comment on the progress of their game.  Kelley's lighting is impeccable, his blocking schematic yet suggestive.    This foray into the rarefied abstract seems to me to be a promising direction for a bright young school connected company to take.  Such a company's professional success would be a real plus for the region's theatre.