Reinventing the Theatrical Wheel

The mark of a superb theatrical production lies in its ability to astonish us even after we've been saturated with reports of its power. News of an audacious version of J.B. Priestley's 1945 An Inspector Calls reached these shores soon after director Stephen Daldry revived it in London in 1992. Hailed by New York City-based critics when it came to Broadway the following year, particularly for Ian MacNeil's ingenious set design, the show scored four Tony and seven Drama Desk Awards. Now at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale as part of a national tour, the production lives up to the press that has preceded it, most notably MacNeil's ghostly, expressionistic set.

Written by prolific English author Priestley in 1946, right after the end of World War II, and widely produced ever since, particularly in the United Kingdom, the classic detective yarn is really a cautionary tale about social responsibility. Set in 1912, two years before World War I rocked the complacency of the West, the tightly plotted drama opens in an industrial city in northern England. The upper-class Birling family has gathered together to toast the engagement of their daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. "You are getting married at a very good time," insists Sheila's father Arthur, the prosperous owner of a local factory. As he tips his glass toward the couple, he predicts years of impending progress and prosperity for them and for the world at large. Suddenly A and disruptively A an inspector appears at the Birlings' door to ask questions about the suicide of an obscure young working woman. As Inspector Goole goads the celebrants, including imperious matriarch Sybil and drunken brother Eric, into admitting their connections to the dead woman, Eva Smith, the snug fabric binding the Birlings together unravels.

Here's where the proceedings go clunk: Priestley quickly wraps up the mystery of who is responsible for driving Smith to her death, deep-sixing the suspense in favor of sermonizing. Accordingly, Goole becomes a mouthpiece who warns against the consequences of selfishness, appealing to people to care for one another before it's too late. And faster than you can say Das Kapital, the Birling clan has been transformed into a transparent metaphor for the greedy upper class that exploits the rest of us through its avarice.

If a modern version of this community theater favorite had been brought to London's West End or to Broadway set in a conventional English drawing room and acted in stoic aristocratic style, as it is most often staged, such an obvious parable about the evils of capitalism would make today's cynical audiences groan. Director Daldry and designer MacNeil have more magical notions in mind, however. Along with lighting designer Rick Fisher and composer Stephen Warbeck, these theater wizards reinvent the show through an innovative use of design and sound, propelling these elements out of their traditional supporting roles and into the foreground. In this newly realized Inspector, the set, the lighting, and the music are not only as integral to the play's theme as the script is, they also add previously unknown dimensions to that theme.

A World War II air-raid siren signals the beginning of this An Inspector Calls, followed by an all-clear blast. A flashlight beam wavers over the audience and the proscenium as a boy makes his way onto the stage. The house lights go down and the curtain rises, not on the interior of an English manor but on a rain-soaked, shadow-laced, bombed-out cobblestone street where only two buildings still stand. One of them, tottering on what appear to be stilts protruding from the debris, is a life-size Edwardian dollhouse. Strains of the soundtrack from the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo imbue the scene with a sense of foreboding as a man in a trench coat stands under a streetlight at the side of the stage, staring at the house. Through the gaily lighted windows come the voices of the Birling family; they've gathered around the dinner table, oblivious to the ominous devastation at their threshold. The man in the trench coat is Inspector Goole; when Goole interrupts the party to begin his inquiry, the precarious house literally opens up and its inhabitants tumble out of their gilded cage to the mean streets below.

Daldry anticipates the reactions of jaded contemporary audiences by subverting the predictable aspects of the production. He enhances the script's suspense by trimming the original three acts to one (it runs for two hours). He toys with our usual notions of time by setting the drama in two historical periods simultaneously. (When the pre-WWI-era house opens up, the Birlings emerge onto a ravaged post-World War II street, as if disembarking from a time capsule.) And he breathes new life into Priestley's stale humanistic plea through the use of bold theatrical techniques. The image of the Birling manse splitting open and, later, sealing up again sends a visual message about the self-absorption of the wealthy class that speaks volumes without words. Even the performances Daldry elicits from his stellar ensemble of actors are infused with a stylized urgency that illustrates just how much these privileged characters have to lose when their comfortable lives are upended -- and what they will do to maintain that privilege.

As Sybil Birling, Susan Kellermann perpetuates her character's blue-blooded pretensions through rock-hard condescension that begins to crack only when she can no longer deny the profligacy of her son Eric. Harry Carnahan, the only holdover from the Broadway cast, at first plays wayward Eric with a dissolute glee that suggests this disappointing son of a successful father will never grow up; when Eric confronts a sobering reality, however, Carnahan turns the spoiled boy into sterner stuff. Philip LeStrange plays father Arthur with a convincing mix of arrogance -- when things are going the way the character wishes -- and defensiveness -- when Arthur's social position seems threatened. As the enigmatic Inspector Goole, Sam Tsoutsouvas comes across as a well-groomed British version of television detective Columbo, bypassing good manners in order to wheedle out the truth. David Andrew MacDonald cuts a natty figure as daughter Sheila's fiance, Gerald Croft. And, playing Sheila, Jane Fleiss delivers an illuminating performance. Radicalized by her family's revelations, Fleiss's Sheila lays down her sense of entitlement at the same time as she lays bare her character. In the moment that Sheila insists "we aren't the same people who sat down to dinner," we know that her family will recover its supercilious composure quite nicely, thank you, while Sheila will never be the same again.

Daldry and MacNeil's coup de theatre just might set a new standard for revivals. Because time-tested vehicles pack the house, theaters from London to New York to South Florida insist on bringing back tried-and-true pieces, often at the expense of experimenting with new or rarely seen plays. This reinvigoration of An Inspector Calls confirms that theaters, directors, and designers can do more than merely dust off a production before remounting it. Reconceiving a show from a different or more profound point of view allows us to experience the work as something fresh.

Stage Notes
If you received a flyer for performance artist Mark Dendy's one-man show Bus Ride to Heaven (playing at the Colony Theater through the end of this weekend), you'll notice the show is being presented by Acme Acting Company. And if you read the fine print under Acme's logo at the top of the flyer, you'll also notice that the company is celebrating its tenth anniversary this season.

Founded by Juan Cejas and Eric Fliss, Acme debuted with Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead in the 1986-87 season. But the most recent Acme production before Bus Ride was the well-received Jeffrey, mounted in the summer of 1994 A a year-and-a-half gap. And when artistic director Cejas resigned his post in December 1994 to pursue other projects, it looked as if Acme, like so many other small and struggling companies, had expired. However, current artistic director Betsy Cardwell puts such ugly rumors to rest when she notes, "I prefer to say we took a sabbatical."

An Acme member since the company's inception, Cardwell joined the theater as a lighting designer but soon found herself in the role of a prostitute in Balm when the actor scheduled to play the part had to bow out at the last minute. "Juan never gave me another opportunity to act," Cardwell remembers with a laugh. Instead she went on to assume various administrative duties, finally becoming a producer. After Cejas left, Cardwell took over his job, she says, because "I didn't feel it [Acme] was quite dead yet." Accordingly, she adds, over the past year she has been "totally regrouping, building up the acting ensemble, trying to raise money quietly, pay off a few debts -- just generally plan and learn."

By launching Acme's tenth anniversary season with a touring production, Cardwell hopes to accomplish three things: Get the company's name back in circulation, raise needed funds, and present the work of Dendy, a performer she met when they were both students at North Carolina School of the Arts. "It's a real joy for me to bring in Mark," she states. "He's a great writer, choreographer, actor. He's one of those people who can do everything."

Future Acme plans include a March production of David Ives's All in the Timing and James Bosley's Fun sometime later in the spring. And by 1997, Cardwell explains, "I really want to take the company into doing original plays only." In the meantime, she reports, "We have the same problems every small company has. We're somewhat financially strapped. And we're homeless. But company morale has never been higher, and we're very excited to do our tenth season.


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