“Who is what and which is who? No one’s always what they seem to be.” Ah, a puzzle! Simple to solve, isn’t it?
Sort of a “Jane” Bond film noir, Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood,” staged at Williamstown Theatre Festival, cleverly mixes Cold War spy drama with particle physics and quantum mechanics.
Elizabeth Hapgood: On nights and weekends, self-obsessed rugby mom of 11-year-old prep school student Joe, but by day MI-5 chief operative. Private phone line on her desk to 10 Downing Street, thank you very much. Her mission: balance home life with work life, though the current work life is woefully complex.
It involves an old flame. Kerner is a Russian defector, now in the employ of the British secret service, working as a double (or triple, or quadruple?) agent. He is a physicist. At one time his mission was Hapgood. Maybe it still is. How can Hapgood balance 10 Downing, Kerner, string theory and particle physics and be down at St. Christopher’s to watch Joe’s rugby match on the weekend?
There is absolutely no danger of spoiling the story if I reveal the plot line. But I won’t. As it keeps shifting and twisting, it is unlikely that if I could even possibly write a cohesive synopsis you would follow without getting confused. Or believe it. But to be quite clear, Stoppard has written a very intriguing, often funny and dense piece of theater. It is a fascinating evening out.
WHERE: Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, MA
WHEN: Through July 21
HOW MUCH: $50
MORE INFO: 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Tough to pin down tone
The play is not often produced and one of the main reasons is it’s darn difficult to get the right tone. It is not just a comedy, or a drama, or a love story or a mystery. But much like string theory, it is all those things and none of those things at the same time. That is a difficult mission to accomplish. And in the Williamstown production, some parts work and some don’t.
The design elements of this production are deceptively simple and flat-out wonderful. Underscored to Mike Yionoulis’ wonderful thumping and brooding beats, set designers Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman’s banks of monotone doors swirl and swing, and open and line up to create various locales from pool changing room, to office, to zoo with brilliant ease. Donald Holder’s lighting borders on the mythical as it artfully shadows and obscures more than just the characters.
Unfortunately, there is a major disconnect. Where the design is muscular and foreboding, full of the intrigue and sense of danger that the play requires, it lies at odds with director Evan Yionoulis’ approach to the script. Staged with an uneven sense of tension, the production fails to find it’s dramatic footing, leaving many unanswered questions that never should have been asked. Funny moments — and there are some — land forced and inorganic, and moments of tenderness are overplayed more in tune with soap opera than spy drama. But what proves lethal is the production’s startling lack of urgency and threat.
Actress Kate Burton is magnificent, wonderfully balancing the “mother” of her MI-5 men with the motherhood of her own boy. She completely inhabits the role and ferrets out every emotional detail from Stoppard’s text, no matter how deftly he hides it.
However, the approach of Jake Weber as Kerner is truly puzzling. Performed quietly and devoid of any discernible passion for anything — science, love or some much needed caffeine — the actor’s performance is well modulated but appears to be based on the literal definition of the term “sleeper” instead of the spy world definition.
On the other side of the coin, the Euan Morton is terrific as Ridley, Hapgood’s number 3 and Reed Birney as Blair offers just enough of the mask to slip to reveal his true intentions to keep it interesting.