With a title like She: Immortal Witch Queen of a Lost World, you know what you’re getting yourself into, if the theater company is doing its job right. Hardcover Theater is definitely doing its job. She is a rollicking good pulpy adventure tale, straight out of the best tradition of old B-movies. It’s a sharp script, telescoping 360 pages of text down to a speedy 80 minutes of stage time, adapted by Steve Schroer (who also directed) from H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel. The strong ensemble work of the cast is anchored by the central performances of David Tufford as our misanthropic narrator L. Horace Holly, and Roneet Aliza Rahamim as Ayesha (aka, She Who Must Be Obeyed).
|she: immortal witch queen of a lost world, playing through november 22 at the bryant-lake bowl. for tickets ($14-$18) and information, see hardcovertheater.org.|
The chief joy of watching She is just how unabashedly low tech it is, while at the same time being highly theatrical. Because it eschews the lure of outrageous set design and prop-heaviness that a story like this is bound to inspire, the production instead makes a pact with the audience which fully engages their imagination. Then, when the big set pieces do happen later on, they seem that much more spectacular—but all the while it’s still a bare bones affair. She reminds you again how much theater can accomplish with just the right set of actors and a good story.
The story itself is fairly simple. L. Horace Holly (Tufford) is entrusted with the care of a young boy, Leo (Cody Sorenson), when the boy’s father, Holly’s good (and only) friend, dies unexpectedly. Holly hires a male nanny, the aptly named Job (Tim Uren), to help him manage the boy’s upbringing. When Leo reaches the age of 21 (hilariously accomplished by simply getting the actor up off his knees standing to his full height), the men follow the wishes of the boy’s dead father and open up a package he left behind. The contents send them on a journey into (of course) darkest Africa, in search of a hidden society which holds the key to Leo’s lineage, and his future. The natives are (of course) restless, held in check by their elder Billali (Paul Rutledge) who gets his orders from Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed (Rahamim). Ayesha is the immortal witch queen of the title, and the very sight of her unshielded by her veil turns men into quivering masses of desire and (of course) obedience. Reincarnation and the eternal pull of true love send the whole thing spinning to its immensely enjoyable conclusion.
Hardcover Theater is always tinkering with new ways to not just adapt text to the stage but bring text to the audience in a way that preserves the form and experience of the original on the page. Direct address to the audience is always a big part of this, which is why Tufford’s performance as Holly is so pivotal. It is his story. He introduces it to us, and guides us through it from start to finish. Along the way, there are many dramatic (and comic) scenes and colorful stretches of action and character interaction, but the core of the production is always the narrative. This conceit also helps the story leapfrog along speedily and get right to the “good stuff.” Examples of this abound, but one particularly fun bit was the condensation of a trek across the jungle. “3 weeks later,” says Holly, while he and Leo and Job take one step forward, and are instantly exhausted and worn down. Some dialogue and then “3 days later,” another step, further exhaustion. More dialogue and then, “3 minutes later,” another step, and they have stepped into the middle of their first big obstacle. It’s little things like that, which don’t draw enormous attention to themselves, but still get the job done, which I find myself thinking back on with great admiration. Also, all the pitfalls of racism and misogyny I felt sure would a part of such a story, this adaptation handily avoided, even poked a bit of fun at, without disrespecting the source material. The pacing might flag just a bit here and there, but those moments are very much the exception to the rule. Any good B-movie has moments you wish might hurry along just a bit, but it always gets back on track and renews your faith in the tale as it barrels ahead.
The real draw here is the adventure itself, and the characters in the thick of it. A trio of actors—Mike Davidovich, Marit Geston, and the previously mentioned Rutledge—each play a great multitude of characters. It is to their great credit, and also the credit of the director, script, and costume designer (Sara Wilcox), that these characters are all individuals, and don’t collapse into one big indistinguishable mess. Attention to detail on everyone’s part, plus the audience’s willingness to play along, enrich the story further. This trio is also responsible for some of the best special effects, again low tech as all get out, but a hell of a lot of fun. As Ayesha gives Holly a guided tour of the catacombs in which she lives, they come upon a mountain of human skulls. Disturbed from their slumber by the unwelcome visitors, the skulls rattle and shake, then come tumbling down, pursuing the human interlopers out of their domain. All done with words, movement, and five actors. Deeply, deeply cool stuff.
All of this is also augmented by a killer sound design by Ryan Ripley, and original music from Mark Manns. The aural component helps the world seem that much bigger, the adventure that much grander.
The grand finale—at the flame of eternal life—pulls out all the stops. And this is how you know you’ve been completely bewitched by the production (no pun intended). The flame is really just some fluttering multi-colored ribbons of foil over a fan, and some lighting effects. But since the production up to that point has been sparing on the special effects, this moment seems just as big as it should be. Add to that the performances, particularly Rahamim as Ayesha. Then to cap it all off, we get the sudden reappearance of a character from earlier in the tale. And because of the good work by the actor, and the iconic work of the costume designer, setting up this character so well before, the audience knows exactly what’s going on. This character getting its revenge is wonderfully unexpected, and yet perfectly in keeping with everything we know of the story so far. It’s just the sort of delightful, over-the-top payoff that pushes something like this from cheesy fun into the category of a damn good story.
I have to admit, the high-brow snob in me was resisting when I first arrived. But I quickly surrendered to the charms of She (Who Must Be Obeyed, after all). Hardcover’s latest production is funny, smart, inventive, and just a heck of a good time.
Four and a half stars: Very Highly Recommended.