'Play Without Words'
Seen on re-runs
by Ed Lippman
March 1, 2005 -- Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, Los Angeles
I can see why Matthew Bourne’s “Play without Words” was so well received in England. In choosing to make sport of a uniquely British institution, the man-servant, Bourne lets loose his cheeky wit, and chaos ensues. Yet for all the potential pleasure and drama of the situation, I couldn’t help feeling like we’d been here before. Bourne seems to be fixated on the theme that once lust enters into your life there’s no turning back. It was truly remarkable the first time, thoroughly entertaining the next. But I wish he’d use his immense talents and move on to another theme.
Bourne is at his best when making social commentary, skewering the things we turn a blind eye towards, conveniently ignoring in the name of propriety. They’re the kind of things we sneak envious glances at back over our shoulder as we walk away, then tell ourselves we should feel bad for hungering for it in the first place. They appeal to a base, more carnal side in each of us, the one we try very hard to deny ourselves. Hence the enjoyment we derive watching the demise of others who give in to desire. And we get lots of opportunity to play the voyeur in “Play without Words.”
The best moments come when the world is falling apart, when each of the couples alternate between fighting off their urges and the thrill of the seduction. Bourne excels at setting action, rising to the challenge of creating three interesting narratives happening simultaneously. Making easy use of the set as elegantly simple as it is complex, not a square foot of stage real estate goes wasted. As Anthony and Sheila alternately seduce and feign innocence, humor spices the scene. Unfortunately, this same humor not only drags the scene out far too long, it takes away from the power of the inner-struggle Anthony confronts. The effect leaves the sequence feeling less doomed than inevitable.
While there are some wonderful moments in “Play without Words,” it felt more like going over familiar territory. Bourne plays women as man’s downfall, becoming stereo-typical props upon which to hang conflict. He even populates his 1960’s world with many of his previous dancers, few of whom are up to the potential emotional power sewn into the subtext of the performance. Scott Ambler was the only dancer with a sense of physical and emotional presence from very start. His Prentice was nuanced, even human. Richard Winsor’s Anthony rose to the character’s possibilities by the end of Act II. None of the women, however, had much to offer in the evening’s performance. The Glendas seemingly pulled most of their character from Barbara Perkins’ Anne Wells in “Valley of the Dolls,” moodily emoting and adrift. The Sheilas were pure stereo-type. And I could have done without the Austin Powers homage in the party scene. This only called attention to itself which was unnecessary and indulgent.
For all the experience working with Bourne these dancers bring, there was a remarkable lack of acting ability. Bourne’s work is intense, demanding for any dancer, but it is less about technical ability than it is about knowing how to move. Like any choreographer, I’m sure Bourne has a soft spot for those he’s worked with before. He knows them and they know the way he works. Yet as an artist, I’d like to think he could see that finding performers who bring less than the right qualities to a work brings the overall level down a notch. Not each of these dancers brought the right mix of abilities to the stage, and it showed. He would do well to concentrate more on dancers who can emote better next time.
I did enjoy certain touches. Near the end of act II when the phone rings, both Prentice and Anthony resist the urge to answer. It was like watching Pavlov’s dog fighting a primal urge.
But I’m tired of Bourne relying on cliché to make his point. In each of his pieces we’ve seen, the hero makes the trek to the seedier side of life -- in this case, a world of bars, strip joints, over-populated subways (nice use of the set as the subway) and strip clubs. Temptation and depression take other forms and need not depend on recycled scenes from previous shows to make a point. “Play without Words” was enjoyable entertainment, but it lacks the power of “Swan Lake” and the intensity of “Car Man.”
Edited by Staff.
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