By Katherine Rundell, based on the short stories of H.H Munro;
Directed by Jessica Lazar
Produced by Atticist
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.5.17
Fourth Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street
by Maria Paz Alegre on 2.13.17
David Paisley, Ellen Francis, Phoebe Frances Brown, and Caitlin Thorburn in Life According to Saki. Photo by Alex Brenner.
BOTTOM LINE: Those who love wit and wickedness will greatly enjoy this charming ensemble production that perseveres amidst the haunting specter of the Great War.
In the cozy basement space of the Fourth Street Theater, it’s safe to assume that audience members should prepare to expect the unexpected. Information placards and images from World War I are sprinkled across the walls, accompanied by enormous portraits of soldiers with animal heads superimposed onto their faces. This bizarre juxtaposition proves to be a fine introduction to Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro—a British soldier alive during the turn of the 20th century who riveted children and adults alike with his penchant for roguish, witty and satirical writing.
The fourth wall is broken immediately with the direct address and third person narration of Saki (David Paisley), directly followed by a dramatization by the ensemble cast. This style continues for the duration of the play and while it feels jarring at first, the audience visibly warms to the atmosphere of storytelling. These retellings range from the wickedly macabre to the snide and satirical. Standouts among the vignettes included "Esme," excellently portrayed by Caitlin Thorburn as the delightfully cunning and avaricious Baroness, and the hysterical "Srendi Vashtar," the story of a lonely little boy who prays to his ferret god for emancipation, wonderfully interpreted by puppeteer and actor Tom Lambert.
The spectrum of comedy and tragedy rises and falls continuously as we are reminded of the harsh world surrounding these mischievous tales. Similar to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis, Saki's dark adventures serve as both an escape and a mirror for the horror happening in England during wartime. Homosexuality was a punishable offense and influenza destroyed even more lives than did the warfare in the filthy trenches—all of which encompassed the real life of the fictitious Saki. The teenage boys in Munro’s battalion delight in his stories, repeating them in the trenches over and over before charging into the horrific area of no man’s land.
Playwright Katherine Rundell has a deft touch for coalescing the stories of Saki with the life of Saki. It is no surprise that an award-winning children's book author, whose own work champions wild and daring characters, would want to pay tribute to a fallen compatriot. Rundell is aided by the brilliant director Jessica Lazar, whose guidance has helped to create a seamlessly connected ensemble with choreographer Ed Addison. Evoking aspects of children’s theater, the cast effortlessly embodies different characters by switching use of a wardrobe piece or prop, similar to plays like Peter and the Starcatcher. It is bare bones theater, where there is no need for an elaborate set, and actors often create their own effects using mime, projection, and puppetry to portray different times, locations, and animal characters. Those that love independent theater will be regretful indeed to miss out on this fine production.
(Life According to Saki plays at Fourth Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, through March 5, 2017. The running time is seventy minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30; Sundays at 3. Tickets are $45 and are available at atticist.co.uk or by calling 866-811-4111.)
Life According to Saki is by Katherine Rundell, based off of the short stories by Saki/Hector Hugh Monro. Directed by Jessica Lazar. Choreography is by Ed Addison. Designer is Anna Lewis. Lighting Design is by David Doyle. Producers are Bridie Bischoff, Tom Grayson Ford and the Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation. Publicity by Karen Greco. Marketing Design is by Kinsmen Collective.
The cast is Phoebe Frances Brown, Ellen Francis, Tom Lambert, Tom Machell, David Paisley, and Caitlin Thorburn