New York stages have been so saturated with meta-theatrics in recent seasons that audiences rarely get to lose themselves in a show without the actors’ constant nudge-wink reminders jolting them back to the realm of smug self-parody. So the British troupe Improbable’s provocative rumination on, among other things, the nature of theater in “Spirit” is especially invigorating. The vicious games of boys with toys evolve into the lethal engagement of men with guns in this deceptively playful exercise, yielding conflicts both personal and global that disseminate hostility even among the three performers as they struggle to maintain a civil rapport.
Best known as a core part of the artistic team behind the macabre delight “Shockheaded Peter,” which strung together gruesome Victorian vignettes about naughty children meeting grisly deaths, Improbable took a misstep last year toward more conventional theatrical narrative with “Theater of Blood” at the National in London. The 1973 Vincent Price horror romp on which it was based was already so steeped in grotesque campiness that the stage company’s elaborate efforts to conjure even more lurid excess seemed redundant and laborious.
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Returning to New York, Improbable has resurrected “Spirit,” a scaled-down, semi-improvised piece first performed in 2000 that shows the audacious troupe in perhaps its purest form.
The staging is simple yet richly evokes multiple environments and moods thanks to supple manipulation of lighting, sound and music, deployed with an inventiveness that just won’t quit. The mesmerizing precision of the stagecraft is matched by the actors and their lissome negotiation of the confined playing space.
Cast members and co-creators Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson emerge one by one, wriggling through tight trapdoors in a steep wooden ramp that sits isolated in the middle of the New York Theater Workshop’s otherwise empty black stage. Bemusedly observing their physical and aural surroundings and emerging from prolonged, Beckettian silence, the trio acknowledge their role as performers in the first of the improvised scenes that bookend the show before switching to storytelling mode.
They assume the characters of three brothers, Ted (Dartnell), Tom (Simpson) and Bob (McDermott), village bakers in a country riven by internal strife. When senior sibling Ted is summoned for military service, Bob, the youngest, snatches the draft letter and goes off to fight in his place. One of Improbable’s trademarks is its use of puppets to sinister effect. That device is employed here in the depiction of war through three gibberish-spouting, initially headless sausage figures, whose barking becomes more ferocious when they acquire breadrolls for heads. (Doughboys, perhaps?)
Using minimal props and design assists, the ramp is ingeniously transformed into a bed, a rooftop with attic window and chimney, a city under aerial attack and the same city in the devastated aftermath.
The three actors’ well-oiled affinity and the subtlety of their signals to each other are among the chief pleasures of the piece, especially as they weave between the fairy tale of the brothers at war and the clashes that threaten to divide them as a performance unit.
Major sparks arise between Dartnell and Simpson, the latter dismissed as a lightweight comic incapable of greater depth: “For 18 years I’ve been working with you, and in all that time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do any acting,” charges Dartnell. “I tend to narrate,” offers Simpson, by way of defense. However, both appear to admire McDermott for his unwavering focus.
A particularly sharp demonstration of that focus comes when Bob tumbles to his death from the cockpit of a plane. (Model planes figure throughout, in the actors’ childhood recollections, as combat props and even as the head of an especially nasty puppet.) The guilt-ridden brothers’ refusal to accept Bob’s death prompts them to employ McDermott’s body as a dummy, a disturbingly inanimate human puppet maneuvered about the ramp as they imagine his survival and subsequent clashes. It takes Ted’s teary rendition of “Without You” to make Bob or rather McDermott spring angrily back to life.
All this may sound like either studied lunacy or a self-conscious exercise in absurdist theatrical deconstruction. But the spontaneity is underscored at all times by a clear-eyed examination of the central theme: the cycles of violence that tear apart individuals, families, cities and nations.
Improbable co-artistic director (with McDermott) Julian Crouch shares directing reins here with Arlene Audergon, whose background combines theater with conflict resolution and reconciliation. Together with the performers, the five-member creative team distills unexpected thematic coherence from a seemingly free-form, fractured stylistic approach
Only in the improvised scene that closed the show on press night did a hint of self-indulgence creep in. A fly buzzing across the stage earlier had been cleverly harnessed to spark friction between the actors. But returning at length to ponder what happened to the winged intruder, the cast drifted into overkill. This was a small lapse, however, in a consistently stimulating show that maintains a knowing balance between its sardonic edge and its angry, unsettling undercurrent.