Kneehigh’s ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘Red Shoes’ in N.Y. (2nd review)
The play’s the thing? No, it’s the storyCAROL ROCAMORA
For sheer theater magic, nobody is captivating audiences this fall in New York like the little Kneehigh Theatre. With two highly visible productions currently playing, Kneehigh’s work is a reminder of how the primitive power of storytelling can enchant and transport us.
Brief Encounter is, well, unique: a stage adaptation of a film adaptation of a one-act play by Noel Coward. And as charming as he is, Coward can’t claim all the credit for this remarkable production, devised by Emma Rice, the inventive director of this British-based company. She’s had the ingenious idea to adapt David Lean’s beloved 1945 film version of Coward’s one-act play, Still Life, and at the same time retain the film as part of the production’s mise-en-scène. The result is a dazzling blend of theater, cinema, and music hall.
Brief Encounter tells the tender love story of Alec, a young physician, and Laura, a young housewife– both married— who meet, fall in love, and ultimately part, their passion unconsummated. The soaring strains of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2 that play throughout this 90-minute tale (as they do throughout the film, too), underscoring the ill-fated couple’s stolen moments in train stations and other locales, would suffice to serve as the story’s lushly romantic backdrop.
But director Emma Rice has grander plans, and therein lies the production’s magic. She uses three realities– the audience, the stage and the actual film itself– and has her actors physically passing between all three.
Thus we see Emma and Alec seated at the beginning in the audience, talking and watching the movie Brief Encounter. Suddenly, Laura rises and literally steps into the movie screen, where she continues her dialogue with Alec, who’s still sitting in the audience. It’s an astonishing visual moment, and it captivates us and holds for the remaining magical 90 minutes.
Using the storytelling skill that is Kneehigh’s signature, Rice deftly weaves her actors in and out of the film itself and onto the stage setting: a railway station restaurant, where most of the action takes place. There are many breathtaking visual moments, such as the scenes where the actors stand on a bridge high above the restaurant that also crosses over the railway tracks– moments that Rice and her scenic designers coordinate with film excerpts of an onrushing train.
Rice further layers her storytelling with live music from an on-stage piano and small band, playing those treasured, sentimental Coward songs (“Mad About The Boy,” “A Room With A View”) that are sung by other ensemble members, who are characters working in the train station restaurant. These musical moments serve as interludes between the love scenes that soar with such sweetness that the actors are literally airborne at one point, suspended from chandeliers high above the stage, drawing gasps of delight from the audience on the night I attended.
Across the East River, in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, Rice has directed her inventive company in far darker fare. This time, the story of origin is The Red Shoes, Hans Christian Andersen’s haunting 19th-Century fairy tale, about the poor little girl who’s given a new pair of red shoes by the old lady in the village who adopted her. Obsessed with her shoes, the little girl finds that they soon take control of her; she can’t take them off, and she can’t stop dancing, even in church, where she shocks the community.
She finally begs the village executioner to cut them off– and her feet along with them. He carves her a pair of wooden legs and crutches, while she watches as the shoes (with her feet still in them) dance off. Her dancing feet and her treasured red shoes continue to taunt her, even as she begs God to forgive her vanity.
As she does in Brief Encounter, Rice advances a singular vision for The Red Shoes. She sets her story in a kind of contemporary madhouse/concentration camp, evocative of Auschwitz or Peter Brook’s stunning 1964 production of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. Narrators with shaved heads, clad only in ragged underwear, greet us in the theater lobby before the show, warning us with their wary looks of the nightmarish tale to come.
They then assume their places onstage as “the boys in the band” to play their music and recount the macabre story of the girl who is punished by her community. And while the chopping-off of the feet and shoes in Rice’s stage adaptation is accomplished with the shredding of the girl’s red trousers, it nonetheless has a jolting effect on the spellbound audience. The Red Shoes, Rice’s first production with Kneehigh (she developed it in 2002), is also a parable about our obsession with making theater.
All this stage magic comes down, once again, to the power of storytelling, the art for which Kneehigh is now internationally known. The group was founded in 1980 by a village schoolteacher in Cornwall who taught theater workshops. It began as a motley grass-roots crew consisting of a farmer, a few students, a guitarist from a local band and an electrician, among others, none of them professional actors. The remoteness of Cornwall (the farthest southwestern tip of the British isles) suited the group’s dedication to nurturing the community.
They began creating theater for children and their families, performed in village halls, at harbor sides, on cliff tops, in pits, quarries, and other unconventional venues. Other Kneehigh shows have been performed in castles and abbeys; several began as outdoor shows. With the arrival of Emma Rice as joint artistic director, the company became a magnet for directors, designers, musicians and writers who shared a love of storytelling.
Kneehigh’s creative process, meanwhile, remains consistent. The company builds a “team” for each project, and takes up residence in a Cornwall barn, where– far from the distractions of TV, the Internet, and the telephone–company members live, cook and work together, developing the stories they’ve chosen to bring to life with a collective creativity and imagination.
“I love New York, it’s a thrill to be here,” the ensemble’s Joe Alessi told a group of spellbound playwrighting students whom I brought to see Brief Encounter. “At the same time, I’m looking forward to returning to Cornwall and working in the barn again.” Having seen these two productions, I’m tempted to join them.♦