Fort Worth — It’s always a pleasure to see a Tom Stoppard play well-executed. But to see a hitherto unknown (to this reviewer, at least) Stoppard play directed innovatively and produced impeccably? Insert chef’s kiss here.
Directors Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers have collaborated with Amphibian Stage Productions to reimagine Stoppard’s original script for Artist Descending a Staircase, or—perhaps more accurately—to take it back to its roots. Originally produced as a BBC radio drama in 1972, Amphibian’s production is staged as an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned radio drama: microphones, headsets, on-stage sound effects—the whole nine yards. Within this seemingly limited (and limiting) framework, the piece playfully interrogates human perception with Stoppard’s characteristic linguistic flair. Explicitly through the artistic movement of Dadaism, with its preoccupation with the limitations of visual imagery, and implicitly through the characters’ often flawed memories of their own experiences, the characters look to their shared pasts to find the cause of the titular artist’s death. But the answer may not be a straightforward one even with all the facts on the table…
A tape recorder clicks on: a low hum, a creak. The sound of footsteps. “Ah—there you are,” a man’s voice intones. A scream, followed by a crash. And a man—Donner (Paul T. Taylor)—lies dead at the foot of his apartment building’s staircase, victim of a rapid “de-escalation”, as Martello later quips. His longtime friend, roommate, and fellow artist Martello (Greg Holt), we are told, came home to their shared apartment to find his friend’s corpse where it lies (or did he?), and their third roommate, Beauchamp (Bob Hess), standing at the top of the stairs. A recording of the dead man’s final moments, taken as part of an artistic project by Beauchamp, seems to indicate that Donner’s death was no accident, and both men are quick to point the finger at one another. Whodunit? That question spins out as the play dives backwards, regressing and progressing through the three men’s lives from the scene of the crime in 1972 all the way back to 1914, then back again to the present. Along the way we meet Sophie (Chris Sanders), a blind woman who fell in love at first sight (just before she went blind) with…well, with one of our three artists at a gallery showing of their work. Whether the man whose face she never forgot is the man she ends up in a relationship with is a question whose answer reverberates throughout the action, with devastating consequences for more than one character.
The cast of four, under Fielding and Wither’s tight, talented direction, quickly puts to rest any concerns that the restrictions of the chosen format might lessen the power of their performances. The main trio, who go from crotchety to fresh-faced and back again, share a sharp, snarky chemistry (when one of them isn’t deceased). Hess and Holt are both familiar to Amphibian audiences, appearing in productions earlier this season—Hess in King Liz and Holt in Cyrano—while Taylor, making his Amphibian debut, has performed across the country onstage as well as in numerous film and television roles. While in other full productions of the piece (it was staged on Broadway in 1989, and in London in 2009) the three men are portrayed in their youth by a set of younger actors, here the performers must make the transformation into their youthful selves, and all three pull it off adroitly.
As the elderly Beauchamp, Hess blusters crabbily, squabbling with Martello over long-standing roommate disputes and the specifics of their glory days; as the action moves backwards, Hess brings out a quiet charm and joie de vivre in the young artist, particularly in his first encounter with the doomed Sophie. Holt’s Martello unsettles, as both a young and an old man. His physicality—a wide, fixed grin and an unnaturally still head—hints at a darker internal life than his airy linguistic acrobatics would seem to indicate. Taylor’s Donner, once re-vivified, is a quietly bitter sad-sack in the wake of losing Sophie, his unrequited love. His younger interactions with Sophie, yearning but muted, are heartrending, and the scene just prior to his demise where Martello reveals that perhaps Sophie lacked the information to make the correct choice of beaux is a tragedy in miniature. And if Sanders’ Sophie has not yet been discussed, feel free to interpret that as saving the best for last. Sanders, a recent graduate of SMU’s MFA program and making her first appearance at Amphibian, puts forward a tour de force performance. Her Sophie is funny, and tragic, and bold, and vulnerable—indeed, she is all these things at once in the desperate monologue before her death—and the brief moments where her character shares the stage with the others are the production’s best.
The scenic design by Seancolin Hankins is simple but evocative, and richly detailed. A perfectly clear piece of plexiglass, suspended from the ceiling, hangs directly in front of the actors’ faces, creating the sense of a sound studio, and the actors, outfitted with antique headphones, are seated before a row of microphones and surrounded by the tools of the foley art trade (the actors for the most part are creating the show’s sound effects live, with a few sound cues pre-recorded). In a clever move from lighting designer Michael Skinner, a row of Edison bulbs, set in fixtures that vary both in height and antiquity, run across the foot of the stage, and light or flash in sequence to indicate the movement of the action from present to past, and back again—a welcome tool for the audience to track the show’s non-linear leaps in time.
The play’s title, replete with double meaning, is a riff on Marcel Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, a piece that was roundly mocked by the artistic community at its first appearance for a variety of reasons, some conflicting (too Cubist! Too Futurist!), some simply amusing (per a gallery selection committee, "one doesn't paint a nude descending a staircase, that's ridiculous... a nude should be respected"). Speaking of it in 1961, Duchamp said that, “the idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me.” Creating one form of art by means of another seems to have captured Stoppard’s imagination—the goal of Beauchamp’s recording projects is something in this line—and by honoring the original medium of the piece (radio) while using it to create an entirely new interpretation of the play, Amphibian can add another bold, innovative feather to its creative cap. Don’t miss this inventive reworking of seldom-seen gem.