Review: ‘Spirit’

It's a long time since one theater piece dared encompass such topics as theater itself, death and even the flexibility of roofs. But as its name suggests, the Improbable Theater very much enjoys defying the norm, and they do so with "Spirit."

It’s a long time since one theater piece dared encompass such topics as theater itself, death and even the flexibility of roofs. But as its name suggests, the Improbable Theater very much enjoys defying the norm, and if that means performers poking their way into view — as if on some Beckettian jag — through a vertiginously steep wooden slope, so be it. That’s the opening image of “Spirit,” the latest and utterly beguiling lark from the troupe behind “70 Hill Street,” “Lifegame” and (to some extent, anyway) the ongoing West End sleeper “Shockheaded Peter.” But “Spirit” — Improbable’s seventh show in less than five years — marches to its own richly idiosyncratic step: It posits a lunatic landscape with, glory of glories, a soul to match.

How pleasing, then, that “Spirit” should prove such an apposite title for a production that breathes with its own identifiable theatrical impulse. That’s not just because the stage features large in the characters’ exhalations — “I love the theater! I gave the theater my life!” rants Phelim McDermott, doubling as himself and as Bob, the youngest of three villager-brothers. Beyond such rhetoric lies Improbable’s realization that any play must depend upon a sense of play, as well; for all the seriousness of intent that informs “Spirit,” it never forgets to raise a smile.

The semi-improvised narrative, such as it is, gets credited to a quintet of co-devisors, and it interweaves two separate but equal scenarios. The fictitious one casts the performing trio (McDermott, Lee Simpson and Guy Dartnell) as brothers jointly employed as bakers who find themselves enmeshed in an unnamed war, with McDermott’s Bob actually going off to combat even though Simpson’s Ted, the eldest and bulkiest sibling, was the one called up. Bob finds himself on a bombing mission — his targeted city is represented by cut-out images pushing their way through the set — only to be shot down, which in turn leaves Ted and Dartnell’s Tom fretting about his fate.

Their concerns draw puppets into the proceedings, of both the human and rubbery sort. At one point, three headless puppets do battle, just as, elsewhere, an actor seems to become a buffeted human doll in front of our eyes. Conflict is a behavioral constant, suggests “Spirit,” which boasts a co-director in Arlene Audergon who specializes in precisely that. Audergon, reports the program, is an expert in conflict resolution who has been working in Croatia to attempt a reconciliation of sorts for that area’s babel of ethnicities.

An altogether separate fractiousness feeds the show’s parallel tale, which relates the increasing divisiveness among three players who sound as if they barely made it together to opening night. “Can I do some acting?” asks one, sounding aggrieved, even as the play raises a lament for the absence of “a proper story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.” But propriety here isn’t the point and invention is, abetted by a loaf or two of bread, a model airplane and some muslin sacks pressed into service as pillows so that a roof can become a bed.

Sound twee? Think again: “Spirit” is too tough-minded for that. By the end, all the players confess to their surprise at “feel(ing) different,” although I can’t for the life of me remember when catharsis also constituted such a delight.


Royal Court Jerwood Theater Upstairs, London; 77 Seats; £12.50 ($19) Top


An Improbable Theater and Royal Court Theater presentation of a performance in one act created by Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson, Guy Dartnell and Arlene Audergon. Directed by Crouch and Audergon.


Design, GraemeGilmour, Rob Thirtle, Helen Maguire, Crouch; lighting, Colin Grenfell; sound, Andrew Paine. Opened March 16, 2001. Reviewed March 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


With: Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson, Guy Dartnell.
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