If you grew up participating in duck-and-cover air-raid drills and memorizing the exact location of your neighborhood's official fallout shelter, then you probably didn't regard the end of the Cold War as just another over-hyped media event. As the first images of a collapsing Berlin Wall flickered on your television screen, you were undoubtedly relieved that the likelihood of worldwide nuclear holocaust had been substantially reduced. But if you had been a member of the international intelligence community, as are most of the characters in Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood, you might have reacted differently to the "new world order." After all, any country's need for a highly paid staff of foreign spies decreases when threats to its security diminish.
Brimming with episodes that mix tongue-in-cheek humor with the sort of intrigue commonly found in espionage novels, Stoppard's cloak-and-dagger farce is being presented by the Hunger Artists Ensemble in the cozy confines of the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre. The local effort sometimes proves intellectually taxing; early on, a sleep-inducing delivery of dialogue flatlines Stoppard's complicated parallels between the theories of quantum physics and the strategies of modern-day spooks. Even so, director Joan Staniunas's insightful approach results in a delightfully unpredictable production that's bitingly sarcastic and gently sobering. As the title character, musing about the relative job security of spies in the post-nuclear age, cynically remarks to a colleague: "We're just keeping each other in business; we should send each other Christmas cards."
The capably acted production is performed against a spare but smartly functional backdrop (designed by Robert Burns Brown) of five doorways that suggest locales such as a men's poolside locker alcove, an intelligence agency "war room" and a rugby pitch. Most of the action takes place within a twelve-foot-square diamond of floor space that partially extends into the seating area. As the play begins, several characters (a couple of whom are outfitted with ridiculously prominent earpieces) participate in an elaborate, supposedly surreptitious briefcase transfer as the pulsating sounds of a jazz trio play in the background, bringing to mind the bumbling gumshoe shenanigans of the old Pink Panther movies.
Thankfully, that's about as far as Staniunas permits the actors to emphasize the satirical aspects of Hapgood. Rather than attempting to milk a few laughs out of Stoppard's pulp spy-fiction references (which are, at best, a stretch for most audience members to fully grasp), the actors perform the bulk of the play as if it were a weighty whodunit with a humorous twist. It's an astute choice that, with few exceptions, focuses our concentration on solving the play's unfolding mysteries instead of getting every sendup and in-joke. And working within close quarters of the director's spartan staging, the performers succeed in keeping us on the edge of our seats for the better part of this two-and-a-half-hour comic cryptogram.
In fact, except for failing to convey the idea that even the most collegial spy doesn't consider his or her closest friends completely trustworthy (do spies, amateur or professional, really have any friends?), most of the performers offer well-crafted, convincing portrayals. Lisa Mumpton is compelling as British intelligence officer Hapgood, a single parent referred to throughout the drama by her code name, "Mother," or, when foul-mouthed agents wish to warn each other of the squeaky-clean boss's imminent arrival, "Mrs. Hapgood." Although Mumpton has some difficulty establishing her character's dominance in the first few scenes, the talented actress hits her stride just before intermission, when Hapgood decides to root out the true identity of a troublesome double agent. To her credit, Mumpton is equally comfortable navigating scenes of intimate, tender feeling and episodes of over-the-top, double-edged satire.
Serving as a pleasant foil to Mumpton's vacillating supermom is Kristin Teig's solid rendering of the no-nonsense American agent, Wates. Sporting skintight black leather pants and tall spiked heels, the leggy Teig injects the drama with a healthy dose of stateside bravado and sex appeal. For instance, after the two scenes of fact-filled dialogue nearly put us to sleep, Teig forces our attention by kicking one leg over a chair, getting in the face of a mid-level British officer and going for the jugular in a manner that defies her adversary's earlier remark about CIA employees: "We are dealing with people who tried to kill Castro with an exploding cigar." To be sure, Mumpton and Teig's portrayals would benefit from an even stronger take-no-prisoners attitude, but both actresses manage to sustain the production during its weaker moments by displaying an impressive command of their characters' passion and humor.
As Hapgood's deputy (who's the recipient of the aforementioned American ire), Stephen Maestas invests his portrait of Blair with a pleasantly bumptious, understated sense of humor as refreshing as it is droll. Curt Pesicka is alternately slimy and charming as Hapgood's close ally, Ridley, whose crucial moment of truth near the end of the play is well-acted and well-staged. Eric Fry assumes the role of Kerner, the mad Russian who has trouble discerning the difference between patriotism and love. And while Kerner's comparison of the relative size of atoms and cathedrals is wonderfully poetic, Fry unfortunately gives most of his lengthy speeches in profile or, worse, while staring into the stage floor. A minor adjustment in the performer's focus, such as delivering his lines just slightly above the heads of theatergoers, would likely increase our collective interest in the character's admittedly dense discussions.
All in all, though, Staniunas and company put forth an amusing, entertaining and provocative version of Stoppard's cunning play, leaving it up to each audience member to ponder the play's unspoken but clearly articulated message: The planet might indeed be safer for democracy, but is our mega-fortified world a safe enough place for our children?
Hapgood, presented by the Hunger Artists Theater Ensemble through October 31 at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, 80 South Cherokee Street, 303-893-5438.
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