Teeming with macabre, whimsical episodes and peopled with bizarre, charming characters--all 23 of whom, save one, are played by a first-rate quartet of actors--Giles Havergal's acclaimed adaptation of Graham Greene's novel Travels With My Aunt is now being presented at the Space Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company. But even though director Nagle Jackson and performers Tony Church, Jamie Horton, Robert Westenberg and Erik Tieze locate most of the abundant humor in Travels, the production suffers from the company's inability to ensure theatergoers' safe passage through the shadowy recesses of Greene's story line.
The story begins as the narrator, a retired bank manager named Henry Pulling, tells us about the strange events surrounding his mother's funeral. Shortly after an Anglican clergyman intones the first few words of the memorial service, we're introduced to Henry's irreverent 75-year-old Aunt Augusta, a spry woman with an unhealthy interest in exotic-looking men. Unfortunately, the funeral urn containing the ashes of Henry's mother gets mixed up with a stash of marijuana belonging to Augusta's African servant. "Let us say he cares for my needs," Augusta naughtily murmurs about the wisecracking Wordsworth. Soon, Augusta and Henry embark on a trip across parts of Europe and South America, where they meet up with a handful of oddly interrelated characters. Among them are an American flower child, a masquerading CIA agent, a renegade Paraguayan police chief and a shady Italian art smuggler who also happens to be Aunt Augusta's long-lost lover.
Dressed in identical gray wool suits and cordovan wing tips, the four male actors perform the entire play on a sky-blue stage floor that's sometimes adorned with projected images of white, puffy clouds, patterns of vegetation or poster-sized travel decals. The performers suggest each locale by quickly assembling a few chairs or tables into a formation that represents, say, the back of a taxi or the individual compartments of a train car. Then, using the occasional prop or costume piece, the talented troupe switches back and forth--and sometimes back again--between characters with split-second timing, all the while displaying an impressive ability to effortlessly exchange one imaginary mask for another.
Horton leads the ensemble with several hilarious, well-crafted portraits. In addition to performing the bulk of the narrating duties, Horton earns generous laughter with his rendering of the pot-smoking, adenoidal floozie Toolie, who hops aboard the Orient Express in order to get one step closer to her final destination of Nepal. Waving a "strange American cigarette" under the nose of an unsuspecting fellow traveler, Horton takes a subtle joke one step further when he warbles, "Pot's fine, but acid is another thing--I don't want to ruin my chromosomes." Horton's equally at home with his enjoyable portrayal of the slithery Visconti, the aforementioned art-world scammer who appears intermittently throughout the story--though it's not always clear whether Visconti is appearing on stage as himself or in disguise as yet another character. Even so, Horton's maneuvering through each eccentric personality is always a pleasure to watch.
As are the animated efforts of the lithe Westenberg, whose wonderful impersonation of Wordsworth earns laughter whenever he shuffles, bounces, leaps, prances and contorts his way across the stage. When combined with what sounds like an authentic Sierra Leonese accent (at the very least, it's consistent throughout), Westenberg's portrait of the worldly-wise valet nearly steals the show. Tickling spectators' funnybones with the admission that he learned how to sing "Abide With Me" while growing up in the shadow of St. George's Cathedral in his native Freetown, Westenberg elicits even more laughter when he demonstrates his soulful version of the old-time hymn. Despite the fact that Westenberg's turn as the CIA man, O'Toole, seems less than inspired, a few plot twists reveal that there's more to O'Toole than initially meets the eye. (Greene himself was a onetime spy for the British government and later wrote Orient Express and other cloak-and-dagger works.)
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Church's primary role of Aunt Augusta is, as might be expected from the British born-and-bred actor, an intriguing model of understated propriety--tempered, of course, with a healthy amount of devil-may-care mischief. Whether Church is lampooning the touchy-feely nature of non-denominational ministers ("He led us in the humanist hymn 'Cosmos, O Cosmos, Cosmos'") or wickedly attempting to locate a phallic symbol in the reading of Henry's tea leaves, the veteran actor lends a much-needed air of authenticity to the night's proceedings. And even though Tieze is relegated mostly to a series of relatively insignificant, minor roles, he's nonetheless eminently watchable, particularly when he masquerades as an overly friendly Irish wolfhound.
The actors' accomplishments notwithstanding, though, it's sometimes difficult to pay attention to significant portions of the play. Part of the problem is that in addition to having each actor rapidly switch from one character to another--they even exchange roles with each other from time to time--each takes the role of narrator at some point. This makes it hard to keep track of who's who and what's what early on, especially given that we're not afforded the luxury of turning back a few pages to pick up a piece of pertinent information we might have missed. As a result, you either have to be a fan of good acting or a devotee of Greene's wit in order to want to ride this train to its final destination. In fact, on opening night, several frustrated audience members simply chose to abandon the meandering two-and-a-half-hour travelogue at intermission.
Ironically enough, the enigmatic Greene once remarked of his 1969 novel, "It is the only book I have written for the fun of it. Though the subject is old age and death--and though an excellent Swedish critic described the novel justly as 'laughter in the shadows of the gallows'--I experienced more of the laughter and little of the shadow in writing it." All in all, that's an apt commentary on both Greene's book and Jackson's deftly staged version of it.
Travels With My Aunt, through November 14 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.