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Stainless Steel and Irony

As Hot as It Is Cool



As Hot as It Is Cool

In 'Play Without Words,' Matthew Bourne Brings the Thrill Back to the Musical

by Rob Kendt

The logic of musicals, an old showbiz axiom has it, is that characters break into song when speech no longer suffices and begin to dance when mere walking won't do. Heightened emotions are the key that unlocks these doors of the imagination, but for most audiences, that key has gotten rusty and those doors pretty creaky.

Instead of a book, choreographer Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words uses highly expressive dance and a live jazz score to tell its seduction tale. Photo by Sheila Burnett.

Maybe that's why most contemporary musical theater is either a hard sell or a put-on, either bowling over our objections to its conventions with a wailing wall of sound (Les Miz, the collected works of Andrew Lloyd Webber) or sending them up (The Producers, Spamalot).

Perhaps, though, all it takes to make a thoroughly modern musical is artistry of such conviction, originality and showman-like savvy that we can't help feeling that old thrill. The Australian director Baz Luhrmann, who created a lavishly attractive La Bohème, is one fervent popularizer with that kind of genius.

Another is English choreographer/director Matthew Bourne, whose new Play Without Words at the Ahmanson in Downtown Los Angeles feels for all the world like a musical. Or, more precisely, it feels like an extended dream ballet from a book musical, of the sort that Agnes De Mille conjured for Oklahoma! or that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen invariably slotted into their fantastic 1950s film musicals for MGM.

True, by definition there's no singing in Play Without Words, a sly and sensuous riff on early-1960s English films, particularly Joseph Losey's The Servant. But the dancing - which in Bourne's case encompasses varieties of movement from the sweeping to the infinitesimal - is so expressive that it almost qualifies as singing.

Take, for instance, the bare leg of servant girl Sheila (Maxine Fone), creeping coyly toward bespectacled bachelor Anthony (Richard Winsor) from its tabletop perch like a boa that will soon wrap around him in all kinds of gravity-defying ways. Or the way the plaid-shirted brute Speight (Alan Vincent) dangles a beer bottle like a half-formed thought, then tosses it aside with an irritable snap. Or the elaborately intimate dressing maneuvers performed by manservant Prentice (Scott Ambler, Steve Kirkham) on his ostensible master, Anthony (played variously, and often simultaneously, by Winsor, Ewan Wardrop and Sam Archer).

If these aren't a kind of dramatic speech in physical form, I don't know what it would look like. Married to Terry Davies' smoky live-jazz score, they are arias, duets and ensemble pieces with both a musical cadence and a theatrical logic.

At times Davies' score and Bourne's staging play like samplers of attitudes, gestures and styles rather than narrative content per se. In Bourne's evocative presentation, the stage is often filled with doubles and triples of each character, and we are often left to compare walks, take in longing looks, goggle at costumes or catch the edges of scenes framed by a staircase, a mattress or an iron gate (Lez Brotherston designed both the witty period threads and the versatile set, which plays hide and seek with Paule Constable's lights).

These dashing atmospherics are engaging enough on their own, but if that's all there was to Play Without Words, we might tire quickly of its posing and strutting. Thankfully, Bourne is no mere stylist; his work is as hot as it is cool, as unbounded emotionally as it is micro-managed to the last raised eyebrow.

It doesn't hurt that Play Without Words is positively drenched in sex, both the act and the gender roles, from the saturnine chill of the manipulative Prentice to the bewildered gawking of bachelor Anthony, from the hauteur of fiancée Glenda (Michela Meazza, Anjali Mehra, Emily Piercy) to the coquettish Cheshire grin of the maid Sheila (Fone, Valentina Formenti).

We may not quite follow every psychosexual twist in the narrative - per Losey's film, it's essentially a class-reversal fable in which the servant becomes the master. But, just as a character bursting into song or dance in a musical expresses more than he could by realistic speaking or walking, Bourne's work has worlds to offer in exchange for the mere satisfactions of narrative.

"Tell me no dreams filled with desire," sings Eliza in My Fair Lady, one of the few book musicals Bourne has choreographed for hire. "If you're on fire, show me!" Bourne goes one better: By showing, he tells, too.

Play Without Words is at the Ahmanson through May 29, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or taperahmanson.com.

page 17, 4/18/2005
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