Here’s an idea! Let’s make a movie out of that terrific Kipling adventure story “The Man Who Would Be King.” We could cast Christopher Plummer as Kipling and maybe get Sean Connery and Michael Caine to play those British rogues who trek into the wild tribal regions north of Afghanistan, where they crown themselves kings and make a fortune exploiting the natives. And we really need a director like John Huston to capture the fierce, forbidding beauty of that mountainous region. What’s that you say — that movie’s been made, already? Well, then, whatever we do, let’s not do a theater piece, because it would never in a million years measure up.
Why anyone of sound mind would take Kipling’s expansive material and wrestle it into a black-box theater (even a beautiful black-box theater like the one in Baruch College’s handsome new performing arts center) is a puzzlement. The confinement certainly doesn’t suit the story (originally published in 1888), which is an invitation to break out of one’s own little black box and follow two wild-eyed adventurers (“two harmless lunatics” they call themselves) as they trudge over the majestic mountains of the Hindu Kush in search of wealth, power and danger.
In deliberately undercutting the spirit of fantasy and sense of adventure that unabashedly appeal to the romantic imagination, Peter Meineck’s deconstruction of Kipling’s text allows Aquila the freedom to pursue its own objective, which is far more political. Going back to Alexander the Great to trace Afghanistan’s history of resisting foreign conquest, scribe preaches to current invaders of the country, arguing the folly of trying to maintain a colonial presence in such a fiercely independent land. While the sober storytelling racks up beaucoup political points, it’s not a whole lot of fun.
The severely streamlined production style is cued to the color black: your basic (black) desk, basic (black) chair, basic (black) hat rack, a stack of (black) building blocks that convert from steamer trunks to mountain ledges and a murky lighting scheme that occasionally plunges the stage into total blackness. The production does muster up a fabulous map designed by Brown Cathell; executed in umber and lighted in golden tones, it hangs on the back wall and drapes over the edge of the stage as a strong visual invitation to put a foot on the dangerous road to high adventure.
Aquila is an ensemble company with solid acting bones, so the storytelling is in capable hands. Louis Butelli gives Kipling the hollow-chested delicacy of an elderly man of letters in a prologue that neatly frames the story as the recollections of an old man at the end of his days.
Richard Willis has a puckish quality that lends charm as well as pathos to Peachy Carnehan, the devil-may-care con man who will follow a friend to the ends of the Earth on a lark.
Anthony Cochrane has the stolid presence, if not the appropriate charisma, to play Daniel Dravot, the bold leader of this two-man expedition to no man’s land.
Although Willis and Cochrane pump themselves up for their initial daredevil trek across the mountains and into the “right inhospitable” region of Kafiristan, the steady deterioration of vocal clarity is an indicator that this is too big a job for two performers (with Butelli as their all-purpose native guide). The more the thesps point at invisible massing armies (“the valley was full of shouting, howling creatures”), the more they gesture at fearsome sights beyond our vision (“can’t go forward for that ravine and can’t get back in this blasted snowstorm”), the more the illusion is lost on the aud.
The narrative breakdown can’t entirely be ascribed to the difference between the art of storytelling and the art of stagecraft. For all its dedication “to productions that intersect on the theme of the effects of war,” Aquila may have come across material that just can’t be pacified.