On a sky-blue stage, among Magritte-style clouds, four men enact a recitation/acting-out of the novel Travels With My Aunt at the Ohio Theatre. Every elegant phrase and devious plot turn is lifted directly from this 1969 picaresque novel, the only work Greene claimed to have written for pure fun. Fortunately, not a particle of this fun escapes in the translation from printed page to stage.
The play is a gratifying repentance for the desecrated 1972 film adaptation with Maggie Smith. George Cukor's overdressed photoplay managed to drain most of Greene's scintillating ruminations on the peculiarities of love, politics, betrayal, redemption, and the British Empire.
Giles Havergal is a triple-threat Scotsman: actor, director, and playwright, whose 1989 play pares down the novel to a breathless balancing act. To encapsulate its complexities on the confines of the stage, he has concocted a formula with the intricacy of a Rube Goldberg contraption. His four actors scurry out of trap doors like frantic beetles. Then, in the style of Monty Python, decked in derbies and other British accoutrements, they play gender tag, blithely stepping into personas of all ages, sexes, and temperaments. Three of the four actors divide up the role of the nephew, and one gets to play the aunt.
This play is an oasis of suggestion. Narration and sound effects perfectly evoke Greene's dark satiric worlds, ranging from a tea shop in Brighton, where tea leaves are used to tell the outrageous fortunes that pursue Greene's adventures, to wartime evacuations in Italy and murders and sambas in Paraguay.
Those who had their first camp feast off the lavish eccentricities of Patrick Dennis's Auntie Mame, as she attempted to keep her nephew from the horrors of the bourgeoisie, will find Greene's Aunt Augusta even more divinely subversive and ruthlessly madcap. Her rescue of her nephew Henry is more touching, since it represents a last-chance escape for a 55-year-old retired banker from the jaws of the dull gray, sexless purgatory of British banality.
Greene's genius rose out of his paradoxes: a serious Catholic convert whose characters invariably engage in a doomed wrestling match with a relentless God; a profound cynic whose creations thirst for redemption. Here, in his most hopeful work, his symbol of the empire, Henry Pulling, spends his dull days waiting to be buried. He is dragged off by his vivacious, devious aunt, who acts like the storm in Gulliver's Travels that sent the eponymous hero into new worlds.
The novelist has a fascinating code of ethics. He believes we only fully live life when braving death. Aunt Augusta finds herself dancing under the stars with her lost love, inches away from the body of her murdered valet/lover who worshiped her. Henry finds himself living to the fullest as part of a crime syndicate in Paraguay.
A sterling cast includes Raphael Nash Thompson, burly and imposing, who specializes with mad comic gusto in playing the sweet young girls and timid spinsters.
Andrew Boyer gets to enact all the sinister detectives and smugglers, with enough outrageous accents and grimaces to do the late Peter Sellers proud.
Michael Rudko concentrates on Aunt Augusta, making her a classic dowager in the Oscar Wilde tradition. He has a triumphantly absurd falsetto and a delicious thin-lipped hauteur.
Our Cleveland chauvinism rankles over the fact that our own highly regarded Scott Plate is given a role equivalent to a valet moving furniture and various bits. Yet our civic pride is avenged in the evening's tour de force when he plays a loyal wolfhound baying for his master, wiggling his canine arse with excitement and ultimately getting crushed into the shape of an animal cracker beneath the wheels of a tank. Then, to make his comic victory a fait accompli, he sets up a party while dancing a madcap whirl, as falling balloons and confetti punctuate his jubilation.
Designer John Ezell has been effortlessly concocting triumphant sets for Great Lakes since John Travolta put on his first disco suit. Here, aided by noted carpenter Dylan Fujimura, they pull off a set with tea tables, Union Jacks, and overgrown dahlias that almost seem to wink in unison with the play's witticisms. When a portrait of her gracious majesty Queen Elizabeth II starts to spin with righteous indignation, the set takes on the aura of an altar to whimsy.
The evening whizzes by with superchief speed. Artistic director James Bundy, doubling as director, makes for a steady engineer. Admittedly, some of the novel's nuances get swept aside in the frantic pace. Some of the tender moments, like the gentle spinster who yearns for the narrator, are sacrificed to the gods of comic expediency.
This play, with its loving transplant of Graham Greene's literary flora and fauna, may be thought of as the ideal greenhouse.
Great Lakes Theater Festival's Travels With My Aunt, through May 14 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, Playhouse Square. 216-241-6000 or 800-766-6048.
Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].