Children’s book author Katherine Rundell’s Life According to Saki, a modest introduction to the life and writings of the title character, arrives at the 4th Street Theatre from England with excellent credentials, having won the 2016 Best of Edinburgh Award. Since 2004, this award has been granted annually, through the generosity of the Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation, to a show seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Wikipedia describes the process thusly:
|David Paisley. Photo: Monica Simoes.|
All productions which receive a four or five star review in The Scotsman newspaper and have not previously been presented in New York City are eligible for the prize.
The winner is announced at The Scotsman’s final Fringe First Award ceremony, which is held on the final Friday morning of the Festival Fringe. The winner receives a four-week run at an Off-Broadway Theater in New York, all expenses paid, including: visa expenses; transportation for cast, crew and props; hotel for cast and crew; per diems; guaranteed stipend; and net box office receipts.
Caitlin Thorburn, Ellen Francis, Tom Machell. Photo: Monica Simos
What the London-based Atticus company has created in Life According to Saki is not unlike several of its predecessors, that is, an ensemble piece in the familiar style of devised theatre; the actors, sometimes cross-dressing, play multiple characters; there's original music played by one or more actors; homemade-looking images are projected; and a variety of simple props are used to imaginatively represent various objects.
This kind of thing, clever as it usually is, has become so common it’s almost impossible to do anything truly original with it; holding empty picture frames up before people’s faces to represent paintings or windows is now more expected than surprising. One of the best moments comes when several actors create the impression of a tiger, but it, too, has a “been there, done that” feeling. On the other hand, it’s the show's overall inventiveness rather than its contents that make a visit most worth one’s while.
|David Paisley, Tom Machell, Tom Lambert. Photo: Monica Simoes.|
The characters belong to the short stories of the Burma-born, British writer Hector Hugh (H. H.) Munro (1870-1916), best known by his pseudonym of Saki. Like so many other important cultural figures he was killed during World War I. The centenary of his death was celebrated last year, and the play pretends to be taking place on the day he was killed by sniper fire near Beaumont-Hamel, France.
|Caitlin Thorburn, Phoebe Frances Brown, Tom Lambert, Tom Machell. Photo: Monica Simoes.|
Set within a simplified version of a frontline trench (designed by Anna Lewis), with offstage explosions reminding us of the danger, the play unfolds around the narration of Saki, who enlisted as a private at 45, making him far older than his fellow soldiers. The premise is that Saki, played with ingratiating charm by the mustachioed David Paisley, talks about his life, interrupting it every now and then to introduce one of his short stories to his foxhole fellows.
|Tom Machell, David Paisley, Caitlin Thorburn, Phoebe Frances Brown, Ellen Francis, Tom Lambert. Photo: Monica Simoes.|
Instead of Saki’s reading the stories to the Tommys (three of them played by women), they act them out. The contrast between what we know life was like in the trenches and the elegant worlds of Saki’s stories makes for a somewhat uncomfortable effect; this is further underlined by the soldiers wearing sparkling clean uniforms despite Saki’s description of their filth.
Not much is known about Saki’s own life but his personal narrative does include a few offbeat anecdotes, including a grotesque one about his mother’s death after being trampled by a cow. Saki’s homosexuality, on the other hand, is only subtly alluded to in a reference to paintings of St. Sebastian. His stories, which puncture the pretentiousness of Edwardian upper-class society, range from the quirkily amusing to the somberly, even gloomily, serious but are usually in the vein of eccentric comedy, replete with Oscar Wilde-like epigrams. You can practically hear Lady Bracknell claiming ownership of the archest examples.
One whimsical story concerns a mustachioed man named Huddle (Tom Machell), so obsessed with propriety that Clovis (Tom Lambert), a mischievous stranger, overhearing someone tell Huddle he needs an “unrest cure,” decides to play a practical joke on him. He visits his home and strikes fear into him and his family with a tale about a bishop who has declared death on any local, man or woman, who isn’t clean-shaven. (In the far more threatening original the target is the Jews.)
|Ellen Francis, Caitlin Thorburn, Tom Machell, Phoebe Francis Brown, David Paisley.|
Another, more a joke than a story, presents a brief shipboard romance between a widowed man (Machell) and woman (Caitlin Thorburn). The only obstacle to their getting hitched is his alarm—before he takes another count—that their total number of children is 13.
A brief sketch, with its reference to a bird with tiny wings that “does nothing but tweet, night and day,” seems to have been chosen for obvious reasons, while another satirizes a politician concerned with pig and poultry farming. In it, a pig and chicken are played by deliberately ragged puppets, nicely performed in semi-bunraku style. Claire Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby are the talented puppet designers.
Additional puppets, the aforementioned tiger, a hyena, and a little boy among them, appear in other stories. The child, Conradin, is at the heart of one of the darker tales, about how the sickly ten-year-old, being raised under the oppressive thumb of his great aunt, imagines his polecat ferret to be a vengeful god he calls Sredni Vashtar. This leads to auntie’s violent demise, dismaying everyone but Conradin.
|Caitlin Thorburn, Ellen Francis, Tom Lambert. Photo: Monica Simoes.|
Jessica Lazar’s direction (supplemented by Ed Addison’s choreography) is crisp, and her actors are well-drilled and replete with the correct combination of tongue-in-cheek irony and straight-faced seriousness.
Life According to Saki, which runs only little more than an hour, is best appreciated as a brief introduction to Saki’s writings. Still, the stories seem now only of passing interest, they’re far from hilarious, and they possess little dramatic weight; in short, there simply isn’t enough here worthy of rediscovery. Sales may now be soaring for reprints of 1984 and Brave New World but I'd be surprised if this play’s visitors will show a similar interest in Saki.
4th Street Theatre
83 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 5