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Entertainment Arts Artsmash

Kneehigh troupe's clever version of 'Brief Encounter' visits Washington

"Brief Encounter," David Lean's 1945 movie based on a Noel Coward play about a thwarted romance, has long been spoken of with great reverence and routinely accorded four-star status.

Personally, I'd shave off a half a star, if only because the soundtrack is so overstuffed with Rachmaninoff's surging, sighing Piano Concerto No. 2. Still, count me among those who treasure the film. Count me, too, among those who find much to savor in the theatrical version of "Brief Encounter," created by the U.K.-based troupe called Kneehigh in 2008.

This extraordinarily imaginative, multimedia show, which enjoyed well-received runs in London and New York, is now in Washington for a limited engagement presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Let me hasten to add that if your affection for the movie is such that the mere idea of taking any part of it less than seriously strikes you as criminal, then this is not the play for you. Same for anyone with an aversion to vaudeville, British music hall and any number of other resonances in this work.

In some ways, the re-imagined "Brief Encounter" is like the popular recent stage adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock classic "The 39 Steps." Both call upon actors to assume multiple roles; both involve much more humor than is found in the original film; both are very much about cleverness and stagecraft.

"Brief Encounter," adapted and directed by Emma Rice, is cheeky, tender, silly and sweet.

The fun starts in the lobby, where musician-actors in vintage usher uniforms serenade unsuspecting theater-goers, and continues with more song and dance before the play begins. The effect is to sweep you right into milieu of a 1930s cinema, where live entertainment would have been interspersed with the featured screening.

As the play unfolds on Neil Murray's flexible and atmospheric set, the perspective shifts frequently, with the fourth wall opening and closing at will. Film sequences blend seamlessly into live action and back again. Splashes of choreographed ecstasy (with projections of crashing waves) somehow emerge naturally. Oh, yes, there are a couple of puppets, too.

You might think the story would be lost in this many-layered process, but it's all there, ready for its close-up.

Dutifully, dully married Laura accidentally meets an equally middle-class and married doctor, Alec. The two still keep on meeting, and the element of chance is replaced by the forbidden tingle of romance. In the end, everything remains as chaste, and doomed, as ever.

A tightly knit cast rides this unusual theatrical vehicle with flair and sensitivity. Hannah Yelland (Laura) and Jim Sturgeon (Alec) create enough chemistry to deliver the emotional goods. The others, in particular the deliciously vibrant and versatile Dorothy Atkinson, are all engaging.

Several Noel Coward songs are slipped into the proceedings (actors provide the vocals and the accompaniment). Sturgeon’s account of "A Room with a View" is quite affecting; "Go Slow, Johnny," from 1961, may not fit in stylistically, but hits the right buttons at the right time and is suavely sung by Damon Daunno.

Of course, Rachmaninoff's concerto, such a pivotal element from the movie, has to turn up, and it does, but judiciously (having Yelland mime playing the music on a piano at the end is one of the few missteps in the production).

It all adds up to an entertaining, affectionate homage to a treasured film with an age-old message about fleeting time — a clock ticks loudly in scenes with Laura and her husband — and the value of treasuring even the briefest of encounters with a kindred soul.

Performances continue through April 13.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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