Inventive 'Travels' is a worthwhile trip Review: Center Stage opens its season with a theatrical production that works.

October 02, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There are many forms of travel -- vacations, business trips, escapes, journeys of personal growth. The character of Henry Pulling experiences most of these in Giles Havergal's adaptation of Graham Greene's "Travels with My Aunt," the season opener at Center Stage.

For the audience, however, the most exciting journey in director Tim Vasen's playfully inventive production is an eminently theatrical one -- theatrical in the sense of telling a naturalistic story in a non-naturalistic fashion.

The primary non-naturalistic element is built into Havergal's script, which stipulates that the play's more than two dozen roles are all played by four male actors, identically dressed in business suits. At one time or another -- and occasionally simultaneously -- each of the four portrays meek Henry, a retired British bank clerk.

On the most obvious level, the reason all four play Henry is that the story is told from his point of view. Vasen toys with the obvious, however, by casting actors who are physically different -- in stature, age and race. His point seems to be, as Walt Whitman said of himself, that Henry contains multitudes.

The quartet's portrayal of all the other characters -- from an Irish wolfhound to an American teen-age girl -- is in keeping with the way Henry's preconceptions are repeatedly overturned. In the first scene, at his mother's funeral, he meets his estranged Aunt Augusta, who informs him that his mother was not his mother after all. In short order, he discovers that his eccentric aunt has led a life of romance, intrigue and amorality in which he soon becomes involved. Nothing is quite what it seems to Henry -- nor to the audience.

There is some consistency to the multiple casting (more so than when the play was done at Columbia's Rep Stage two seasons ago). Lanky, gentle Ken Cheeseman plays the women who are attracted to Henry. He's ebullient as the American teen-ager (and also plays her father, hence the family resemblance); he's demure as one of Henry's former clients, who emigrates to South Africa; and he's bashful but bookish as the 14-year-old daughter of a Paraguayan police chief.

Terry Alexander smoothly portrays Augusta's paramours -- devoted Wordsworth, a native of Sierra Leone, and his romantic rival, corrupt Mr. Visconti, a short, fat Italian war criminal, the love of Augusta's life. And Craig Mathers is hilarious in a host of nonspeaking roles, from the irrepressible Irish wolfhound to Henry's Uncle Jo, who died dragging his suitcase on one last, valiant journey.

Unlike these actors, who play numerous roles, Laurence O'Dwyer plays only two -- Henry and Augusta. And though you never quite forget his Augusta is being played by a man, he does have a knack for changing age, gender and demeanor at the flip of his bowler hat.

The play's whimsy is further enhanced by the Magritte feel of Michael Vaughn Sims' sky-blue set and David Burdick's costumes, and by Mark McCullough's lighting, which readily transforms the wide open stage from a cramped train compartment to a cavernous Paraguayan mansion.

When theater succeeds, it takes you places you've never been. "Travels With My Aunt" not only does that, it does it in a way Graham Greene might never have imagined, though he would have respected the daring technique.

Just as Aunt Augusta teaches Henry that the complacent life is not worth living, so does Havergal take risks in his adaptation, to which director Vasen has added risks of his own.

Though the nearly three-hour production could be tighter, its overall adventurousness makes "Travels" well worth the trip.

'Travels with My Aunt'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and 1 p.m. Oct. 14. Through Oct. 25

Tickets: $10-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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