nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
September 14, 2005
Their three heads arise sequentially from square holes in the hollow wooden triangle that constitutes their set and they look at each other until one decides to speak. The wandering conversation is about the music that can be heard from the theatre next door, the fly that just landed on the set, the degree to which they feel “in the moment” as actors. After their thoughtful discussion winds down, they look at each other again, and slowly duck back into the triangle, gingerly replacing the wooden lids.
This description—the first few minutes of Spirit, a play by the London-based theatre company Improbable (currently in performances at New York Theatre Workshop) — may seem Beckettian: a scientific precision-based approach to making art. And it is. But the science practiced by Improbable is not one of repetition, theories and facts; rather it is the science of ephemerality.
The narrative of Spirit is the story of three storytellers—played by Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott, and Lee Simpson— who are telling the tale of three brothers who have a bakery in the city of a war-torn country. The oldest brother (Dartnell) awaits a letter, drafting him into the army; the youngest brother (McDermott) intercepts it and decides to go to war instead, leading to his tragic demise. However, given the title, it is no coincidence that what I am compelled to convey about this piece is the nature of the events, rather than the events themselves.
Directors Julian Crouch and Arlene Audergon have created in collaboration with the cast a cautionary tale about war that is among the most thoughtful and pacific experiences I’ve had in the theatre. Dartnell, McDermott, and Simpson share a fraternal rapport so genuine that the dissimilarity of their physical likenesses is immediately moot. Though the sibling-narrators indeed generate a great deal of conflict—a war enacted with puppets whose heads are loaves of bread; a shouting match among the storytellers about who is more present and emotionally-invested as an actor—Spirit brilliantly eschews contentiousness (and pretentiousness, for that matter), moving through those all-too-human limitations like a ghost.
I am impressed by Improbable’s striking theatricality—from their ingenious set (realized by Crouch, Graeme Gilmour, Rob Thirtle, and Helen Maguire) to the sequence where the pair of living brothers ventriloquize the body of the dead one to illustrate the psychic damage he might have suffered had he survived— but I am more impressed by the manner in which all of their theatricality is executed: a gentle, bold simplicity.
Spirit is a play (in both senses of the word) that uses facts (that is to say detail) to uncover truths (that which is universally human). Inherent in their literal and figurative depictions of war, is the suggestion of a kind of solution, but Improbable is not so direct or didactic. Perhaps this solution is most vividly shown in the way these men perform: they listen, they receive, they use, and they let go. Their performances are generous—with each other, but especially with their audience; you will leave with, if nothing else, a stronger understanding of human resilience, even in the most frighteningly uncertain of historical moments.