Rep Stage’s Travels with My Aunt, adapted from the Graham Greene novel by Giles Havergal, is a shaggy-dog story with dozens of shaggy dogs, all of them played by Michael Russotto, Nigel Reed, Lawrence Redmond, or Bill Largess, who also plays a real dog (more on that later).
It is the story of Henry Pulling (mostly Largess, but sometimes Russotto, Reed or Redmond), a retired banker whose impeccably sterile life is interrupted at his mother’s funeral by his vaguely disreputable Aunt Augusta (Reed). Augusta, a septuagenarian with a taste for whiskey and adventure, soon dragoons Henry to her apartment, where her bodyservant (meant in every sense of the word) Wordsworth, a huge African (Redmond, a Caucasian middleweight) awaits. Soon Augusta teaches Henry that his long-dead father (Redmond, in a supine position) was not who Henry thought he was (which was a man with a gift for taking naps in unusual positions) but in fact quite a hound. What’s more, his mother was not his mother!
Henry goes home after these disconcerting revelations, only to be rousted by police (Russotto and Redmond). After seeing him leave Augusta’s home, they believe that he is smuggling marijuana in the ashes of his mother, or whoever she is. Henry, whose previous interests have been confined to the exchange rate and his dahlias, is now a drug suspect. So of course he is happy to accompany Augusta when she decides to take the Orient Express to Istanbul, in order to meet up with a friend, for unknown purposes.
An extraordinarily disjointed and episodic narrative ensues. Some of the episodes are hilarious, and some are tedious, but none of them advance the story very much. All plays are by their nature audience participation, in that the audience works hard to understand the meaning of what they are seeing and to put the narrative together into a coherent whole. Where, as here, so many characters (there are 27) jostle to create so many individual stories, the audience works overtime to apprehend the overarching story. If the individual stories don’t lead anywhere, the audience feels betrayed.
That happens here, I’m afraid. There is a very funny encounter between Henry and Tooley (Russotto), a young hippie who fears that she is pregnant. Henry smokes a joint with her, thinking that he is toking on a high-quality American or French cigarette (this was 1969, so such a thing might have been possible). The episode’s only relevance to the story is that Henry later meets Tooley’s father (Russotto), who befriends him. Another story is about Wolf (Largess), an extraordinarily friendly and energetic dog. I loved the story because it gave Largess the opportunity to be the world’s coolest dog – maybe the best dog I’ve ever seen on stage, anywhere, and much better than several real dogs I know. But what this episode had to do with the story is beyond me. And there are other episodes like those, but less fun to describe.
After the passage of almost three hours, we stagger to a conclusion. Greene believed that sin was invariably triumphant in the world, but even by these standards, it is a pretty grim one. Henry, hitherto a virginal prig, is now living in the house of a war criminal and engaged to marry a child. He has learned his lessons, and so have we.
Well, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk about what’s unique in this play, and what’s terrific. First, what’s unique: turning a novel into a play is a huge undertaking, fraught with danger, and Havergal’s decision to do the entire play with four actors is brilliantly imaginative and exciting. Boldly, he has all four actors line up to play Henry serially; after one delivers a line and walks offstage (usually to assume another character) the next will step in and deliver another line. The transformation of actors from one character to the next is done seamlessly under Kasi Campbell’s flawless direction. It becomes a sort of magic act; new Henrys pop up all over the stage, with perfect timing, and while they do the old Henry becomes someone else, often before our eyes. To underscore the production’s well-merited confidence, the actors do little by way of props and nothing by way of costume; Reed, for example, plays Augusta in the same shirt and trousers in which he plays his other roles (a cop and a bartender, as well as Henry). This production relies solely on the skill of the actors to define characters, and it is sufficient.
Which brings us to what is terrific – four first-class performances, in response to Campbell’s first-class direction. I cannot say enough about Russotto, who turns in the best performance I have ever seen him do, and by a large margin. He absolutely sparkles in eleven roles, five of them female, and gives each of them a vivid distinctiveness, even of the character says only two lines.
The other actors operate on the same level. Those of us who were lucky enough to see Reed in Bay Theatre’s Mauritius will be unable to recognize the bad-ass industrialist coin collector he played there in this production, so coquettish does he seem as Augusta.
Redmond, who plays twelve roles, uses his whole body constantly, and so is able to be big or small, male or female, seemingly without difficulty. As for Largess, Henry Pulling is right in his wheelhouse. Largess furiously makes this man, faintly ridiculous and implausible to the modern audience, a real person whose dilemma, though expressed in its understated British way, becomes palpable to us.
So if you see this play – and, really, do you have anything better to do? – you should see it as you might see the Cirque du Soleil. Don’t scrutinize it for a narrative; there is one, but the game is not worth the candle. Instead, see it as a series of magic tricks, done by superb actors, brilliantly directed.
Travels with My Aunt
Adapted by Giles Havergal from a novel by Graham Greene
Directed by Kasi Campbell
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Travels with My Aunt runs thru Sept 12, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT