Where 417 W. State St., Ithaca, NY
When Through September 22nd
Review by Miriam Taylor
Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, long ago named “upstate’s only off-Broadway theater,” started off its 23rd season this weekend with their production of Heroes and absolutely lived up to their nickname.
The play, originally known as Le Vent Des Peupliers (The Wind in the Poplars) by Gérald Sibleyras and meticulously translated to English by Tom Stoppard (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love fame) is the story of three World War I veterans in an “old soldiers home” in France in the year 1959. It easily earns its name as a comedy as we listen to the men, each cantankerous and stereotypically geriatric, discuss their lives – the women they fancy and fear— from their perches on a sun-soaked terrace over-looking a cemetery and a poplar field. But there are moments of utter tenderness as well as despondency amidst the jokes about nuns and their half-cocked plans of escape.
All of this— of course— actually takes place on a thrust stage in downtown Ithaca. The attention to detail that scenic designer Kent Goetz (the resident scenic designer at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts) put into the slightly crumbling terrace and exterior of the soldier’s home which immediately transports the audience to mid-century Provence. With its butter yellow stucco and terra-cotta roof, the scattered pots of mums and lavender, and the partially exposed stonework of the old bastide, the set rewards a closer look.
As if the set alone didn’t reinforce the script, the meticulous costuming done by Lisa Boquist, who has worked on a number of Kitchen Theatre productions, aptly highlights the time period as well.
The play is a three-man masterpiece, and Boquist distinguishes each performer elegantly. Henri (played by the charismatic and first time Kitchen actor Arthur Bicknell) is the old dandy, complete with silk ascot, slick wooden cane, wartime limp, tweed suit and suspenders, and armed with a Dick Van Dyke personality and smile. Philippe (played by Eric Brooks, a member of the Actors’ Equity Association and veteran of the Kitchen Theater) is everyone’s grandfather, with a shaggy crop of salt-and-pepper hair and matching beard, navy slacks and a sky-blue Mr. Rogers’ sweater. And the meticulous Gustav (played by Broadway’s Evan Thompson, another Actors’ Equity Association member) is a clean-cut Hemingway donning his three piece suit, suede Oxfords, Panama hat, silk bow-tie with matching pocket square and a venerable white mustache.
With the characters’ identities firmly established by their costumes, theactors could easily be lazy with their mannerisms. And while some are stronger than others, each clearly cements a personality to his character and doesn’t rely solely on the writing. Bicknell’s overacting at the onset of the play can be forgiven for the subtle nuances he gives to his character as Henri descends from the marked enthusiast to the one who iterates that “nothing ever changes”. Brooks acting is consistent throughout, and while his character is the least flushed out of the three, he does his duty by Philippe. But Thompson absolutely shines as the seemingly straight-laced, sometime off his rocker, unexpected encourager of the group, Gustav. He looks to be the classic method-actor, constantly “on.” From the way his hand rests to the way he crosses his leg, he never breaks character.
Props must be given to resident director Margarett Perry (who has directed over 15 productions at the Kitchen Theatre) for coaxing out of these actors excellent semblances of Sibleyras’ characters. The decision to not fake French accents was a much appreciated one, though how quickly the lights darkened at the end of each scene was an annoyance. Many poignant lines lost their weight without the chance to be digested in the daylight a moment longer. A similar critique holds for the cuing of particular lines, a few jokes fell flat because of off-delivery.
But the moments that pull the audience out of the play are so few compared to the ones that pull them in. By the final scene, three elderly men with arms stretched back mimicking the graceful flight of geese, you have completely forgotten that you are sitting in an intimate back theatre in Ithaca and still have to drive an hour back home. The performance is an utter joy to watch.