Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's recent review of Something Rotten!
But the unspeakable works its way into the rest home chatter on a regular basis in Heroes, originally by Gérald Sibleyras (from 2003, as Le vent des Peupliers). It was translated into English as Heroes by the much-admired playwright Tom Stoppard in 2005 and won an Olivier award as best new comedy. The laughter in a new production in St. Louis is sustained by a trio of wily actors, though the comedy is often dour and oblique in this hour-and-fifty-minute show that marks the birth of the Albion Theatre company at the Kranzberg Arts Center.
Gentle laughter creeps in on a regular basis (and some heartier laughs, too) in the shadow of such unspeakable topics as death and decay, but also romance and adventure, under the witty direction of company founder Robert Ashton. Two of the outstanding cast members look a bit young, and there are only fleeting jabs of the pain of impending mortality. But there is a kind of dangerous, teetering stasis about the whole thing, amongst these three incautious ministers of timelessness.
Gustav (Will Shaw) is shaken out of his aristocratic mien over the toying contradictions posed by Henri (David Wassilak) and by the desperate awkwardness of Philippe (Isaiah Di Lorenzo). Philippe has a bit of shrapnel lodged in his brain from the "War to End All Wars." And as a result he elicits genuine sympathy: convulsing again and again, always uttering the same bewildering, combat-type phrase when he comes to.
Meanwhile, Henri finds adventure beyond the nursing home gates, and provokes Gustav at every opportunity over his cloistered toughness (which evaporates the minute they set foot outside the compound). Is there really a beautiful young teacher at a nearby school for girls? Or is it just another way to make a fool of the imperious Gustav? It doesn't take much to provoke him as the play goes on–in spite of Gustav's pretension, his and the souls of the others are beginning to resemble dug-out graves.
The costumes by Tracey Newcombe are excellent, and there's a haunting and clever "fourth character" of a statue of a loyal dog on stage. Competing (in our minds) with the dog for laughs, the highly talented Mr. Di Lorenzo fantasizes about the unseen nuns who tend to them, who may also have an elaborate plot to do him in. In the role, the super-computer inside Mr. Di Lorenzo carries a heavy load, though, as Philippe displayed the greatest sense of danger and mortality and desperation on stage in the show's opening weekend.
Philippe's feverish faints gradually work their way into a fine running gag as these forgotten old men plot their final adventure. Which is something we also saw the old French women do in Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. But it is unexpectedly transcendent in this case, and not at all done as satire.
Still, something seems to have been left out, as is often the case in French plays translated for American audiences. It's as if some Gallic sensibility is quietly defeated by the urge to be winning of favor that suffuses most American comedies. Gustav and Henri are a bit snooty to each other, but in a purely objective sort of way. Mr. Wassilak is a master of acerbity, and Mr. Shaw reveals an unexpectedly delicious and expansive sense of haughtiness. But more of all that, please, clashing together, and in a more personal manner. For the sake of comedy.
And not to beat a dead horse, but that same air of polite disdain is also lost in translation in Yasmina Reza's Art, based on the three or four versions I've seen of that modern French classic. At the same time, I'm not really sure that sneering quality would go over well at all here, if anyone did manage to pull it off. Except for the particular rules that apply to the comedy of the curmudgeon.
Albion Theatre's Heroes runs through October 9, 2022, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit www.albiontheatrestl.org.