Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Brief Encounter": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG BANG BANG

If A.C.T.'s production of Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter" were any better they'd have to tear down the old Geary Theater and build a shrine. The staging is without parallel -- the combination of theater and film and old-time English roadhouse irreverence, plus Noel Coward's incisive songs -- and a love story! The only thing they could have done better was to have figured out a way to get everyone in the city into the theater -- leave idiot TV, brain-dead video games and violent cop killer films behind and discover what a brilliant theater experience can be like, if only rarely.

The year is 1938 and the story is so simple -- woman and man meet briefly in an English train station. He is a doctor and removes a cinder from her eye. It is all very innocent until love's thunder begins to crash all around them. That thunder is everywhere, loud with pounding waves, trains blasting through the stage and a backdrop of the beginning of world war; but there is also soft thunder, composed of winks and touches and knowing glances, as we see the everyday lives and loves of the workers in the tea shop. For them, love is simple:

"Any little fish can swim,
Any little bird can fly,
Any little dog
Or any little cat
Can do a bit of this
And just a bit of that.
Any little horse can neigh
And any little cow can moo,
But I can't do anything at all
But just love you."

But as Noel Coward knew, it's never quite that easy. When Alec (Milo Twomey) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) feel waves of passion, we get waves of passion.

"Brief Encounter" was an iconic English film, directed by David Lean in 1945. The question was whether a modern American audience would accept an affair that appears modest by 2009 standards. Oh, my, not to worry. There is a set piece (coupled with film footage) of Alec and Laura riding in a canoe. They fall in the water, so they then must dry their clothing. This scene is so charged with electricity there is not one breath escaping from the audience, as Laura removes her skirt, and Alec his vest, and they sit on a log, together but yet not, as the extraordinarily prescient song "Go Slow, Johnny" is performed in the background. The music appears to be flowing from Laura and Alec's hearts, while their repressed emotions battle to break free.

The scene may be a metaphor for Coward's own life, a gay man writing in the 1930s and 1940s, and it's hard to imagine a song fitting a scene any more perfectly.

Every member of the cast is brilliant. The comedians are funny, the lovers are both tragic and understandable, the musicians weave in and out of the drama and everyone can dance. There are puppets. One minute the cast is in front of us on stage and the next they are with us, in the audience, watching "Brief Encounter," the black and white film being projected on a screen. At times they walk though that screen and merge with film footage of themselves on that train, or in that canoe. The whole shmear is breathtaking.

Love comes and love goes. We have to leave the theater when the curtain comes down, but we don't want to.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Brief Encounter" it's highest rating in years: Four Stars with FOUR BANGLES of PRAISE. We understand that Four BANGLES ought to round off to the next level of Five Stars. There is absolutely no reason that this isn't a Five Star Show, except...well, what if we like the next one more? Sometimes ratings make no sense. The show couldn't be better.

One BANGLE of PRAISE is for Beverly Rudd who plays various roles, most notably Beryl the waitress in the tea shop. She can do anything at all, plus she has a clear Val Diamond-like voice to boot. Another BANGLE is for the live musicians, who intertwine with the action so we never allow our hankies to distract us from the fact that we are also watching a musical. Emma Rice's spot-on perfect direction and stage adaptation grabs the third BANGLE and the entire mixed-media Kneehigh Production takes home the fourth -- and there could have been more. The boat train. The Rachmaninoff piano finale. We could have handed out BANGLES like M&Ms. The large bag.

So what are you waiting for? Get yourself downtown and take the one you love. Make it her birthday present and blow for the best seats. Thank me later.

"Brief Encounter"
A.C.T. Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 4

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