Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wolves at the Window

The problem with Toby Davies's Wolves at the Window (And Other Tales of Immorality) is that there are never any wolves at the window. Perhaps in the early 1900s, when Hector Hugh Munro (more familiarly known as Saki) wrote these trick short stories, they were surprising, the type of novel brave Dahl-ish children might delight in reading under their covers. (For instance, in "The Storyteller," two children who are tired of hearing morality tales, hear a new tale, in which a young girl is savaged by her own goodness.) But in this stage adaptation of ten Saki stories, that nervous delight is muted--first by Davies's choice to collage some stories together, which dilutes the punchlines, and then by Thomas Hescott's muddy direction, which relies more on the audience's imagination than his own. With the exception of a few stories that would be entertaining even if used as a filibuster's fodder, the night's entertainment falls entirely on the cast of four--and consequently, it keeps falling.

However, falling and failing are very different things. While Wolves at the Window suffers from an inability to commit to a style, the motley result is not without its own charms, especially when they force the actors out of their recitative or too-well-mannered states. Gus Brown, whose terrific dryness resembles something out of a Gorey painting, is perfect for this show; watch him as a sad-sack artist who agrees to help a failing business in order to marry the owner's daughter, only to find that, thanks to the cash he earns them, he's now socially ineligible. However, he's even better in animal form--as a tragically dying Goat or as the titular "Tobeymorey," one of those terrific wish-fulfillment tales in which a family, having taught a cat to speak, instantly wishes the gossiping creature would shut up. On the other hand, Jeremy Booth and Anna Francolini, who are often tapped to play slight variations on the exact same character type, desperately need the sort of loony roles that Sarah Moyle gets to play with.

What has happened, both in the writing and the directing, is that a proscenium has been built--literally, it has the sign "Naturally Depraved" affixed to it--but is only rarely played out to. As a result, the show lacks the requisite vitality to lift itself from the page to the stage, and during the more descriptive scenes--like the anti-climactic closers to each act--the show drops to a dead crawl. There is nothing less thrilling than watching an actor describe the stag they are pretending to watch rush toward them, even with a strobe light flickering for effect. The stories that comprise Wolves at the Window relied upon surprise; the play that Davies has cobbled together must not forget to do the same--if all we can expect from a night at the theater are Saki's twists, why not just read the open-source versions online?

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