Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Play Without Words

Also see Sharon's review of Climbing Everest

Valentina Formenti and Alan Vincent
The first look at the program for Play Without Words shows three people playing nearly every role. This prompts the same initial reaction in everyone - they ask which dancer is playing each role tonight.

They all are.

The play's short introduction, although confusing from a plot point of view, clarifies the multiple-dancers problem. We see one man sitting in an easy chair. Three men, identically dressed in servant's attire, enter and simultaneously deliver the same perfectly-choreographed hand-flourish.

The guy sitting next to me gasped, "Wow." And it is wow-inducing. One man doing a hand-flourish is an overly-dramatic affectation. Three men doing it in synchronization is dance.

But director/choreographer Matthew Bourne isn't limited to having his performers working in synchronization. Bourne also has multiple dancers portraying the same character at slightly different points in time. We see a couple entering an apartment; another pair plays the same couple on a staircase inside the apartment; a third pair shows them at the top of the stairs. Or, in a wonderful little bit, we see our protagonist's servant help him get dressed in the morning while we simultaneously see another version of his servant help another version of the man get undressed for a bath. The simultaneous use of two sets of performers conveys so much more in the way of time and routine than one pair could possibly accomplish alone - not to mention that it gives Bourne wonderful opportunities to choreograph for a quartet.

There are yet more delightful possibilities created by the simultaneous multiple casting. Sometimes, particularly in the more sexually charged scenes, the actors are portraying the same theme with completely different choreography. It's very clear that one character is making a pass at another, but with six dancers instead of two, Bourne can choreograph three passionate seductions instead of just one. Which leads to the most intriguing use of triple-casting yet: If two of the women reject the advances, there's still the possibility that the third might say "yes."

Play Without Words is true to its title, telling its story solely through movement. Bourne's themes are sex and power. Los Angeles audiences are well-aware that Bourne's steamy choreography is more than up to the task of portraying sex, and he doesn't disappoint here. But Bourne's choreography lends itself surprisingly well to themes of power. Just watch how the servant bends to the ground to help the man dress, or how the man leans on him, and their class-based relationship is perfectly conveyed.

The plot, inspired by the film The Servant, is a relatively simple one, following five characters. It takes place in London in 1965, where young Anthony has just acquired a new home. Anthony has a fiancee, a woman who oozes respectability and class. She approves of the apartment. Although it isn't necessarily "done" in the 1960s, Anthony hires a servant. The servant brings with him a maid, an attractive young woman who is rather more open about her sexuality than Anthony's fiancee. The fifth person brought into this game is Speight, an old friend of Anthony's, whose wrong-side-of-the-tracks charisma offers Anthony's fiancee the same sort of temptation Anthony finds in his new maid. (Speight's hard-drinking and hard-living also offer his dancers the most acrobatic dance moves in the show, including a particularly eye-catching angry-young-man solo.)

Although the story delves into shadowy places and baser instincts, the choreography is always clean and refined. The Play Without Words company addresses each move with a competent grace that borders on elegance. You can very nearly lose track of the story if you're momentarily distracted by the precision with which a chair is sailed across the floor between actors, always in perfect time to the original jazz score. While the dancers on stage are frequently doing different moves that are meant to appear as the unique acts of individuals, the absolute perfection with which those moves are delivered proves Play Without Words is truly a well-choreographed ballet.

Play Without Words continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through May 29, 2005.

Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre -- Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director; Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director -- presents A New Adventures/National Theatre Production: Play Without Words. Devised by Matthew Bourne; Music by Terry Davies; Inspired by Joseph Losey's film; By Special Arrangement with StudioCanal; Based on The Servant by Robin Maugham. Sound Designer Christopher Shutt; Lighting Designer Paule Constable; Set and Costume Designer Lez Brotherston; Choreography by Matthew Bourne and the Company; Directed by Matthew Bourne.

Anthony - Sam Archer, Ewan Wardrop, Richard Winsor
Glenda, his fiancee - Michela Meazza, Anjali Mehra, Emily Piercy Prentice, his manservant - Scott Ambler, Steve Kirkham, Eddie Nixon Sheila, his housemaid - Maxine Fone, Valentina Formenti Speight, an old friend - Eddie Nixon, Alan Vincent, Ewan Wardrop Alternates - Madelaine Brennan, Darren Ellis, Neil Penlington

Photo: Sheila Burnett

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Sharon Perlmutter

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