As we sat down for Saturday night’s performance of Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter at the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, I was telling my friend Teresa that I’d always found that stage to be a space performers had to struggle to overcome—that they had to work especially hard in that space to connect with the audience. Just then, a performer walked out and stood in the aisle. Then he started playing the spoons, and how can you not feel a connection with a guy playing the spoons?
Brief Encounter isn’t only the most approachable show I’ve ever seen on the McGuire stage, it may be the most richly human production I’ve seen at the Guthrie since the company moved to its riverfront home. It’s gloriously theatrical, vastly entertaining, and completely captivating. The Kneehigh troupe cut through the setting’s starchy formality like scrubbing bubbles, winning your heart and sparking your imagination.
Inverting the film-to-stage-to-film path taken by The Producers and Hairspray, Brief Encounter is adapted by director Emma Rice from the 1945 film that was itself adapted by Noël Coward from his 1936 play Still Life. Teresa calls the film “the perfect melodrama”: a star-crossed love affair between Alec, a married man, and Laura, a married woman, parlayed into a long stretch of agonizing tension with the pair trapped between their established relationships and their heartfelt mutual passion.
|noël coward’s brief encounter, presented through april 3 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($29-$65) and information, see guthrietheater.org.|
Crucial to understanding why the scenario registers as tragic rather than obnoxious (if handled differently, it could inspire a sarcastic Twitter hashtag like #beautifulpeopleproblems) is a climactic exchange in which Alec argues that nothing is more important than the pair’s love, to which Laura responds that in fact there are things that are more important. Laura sees the affair as a moral lapse, not just in the formal sense of breaking a commandment but in the real sense of threatening the commitment she’s made to her husband and children. The question, for Laura, is whether she can bear to betray her conscience to follow her heart.
Leads Hannah Yelland and Milo Twomey are, crucially, very likeable; the fact that they appear to be fundamentally decent people is essential to the story’s impact. What’s most impressive—indeed, almost miraculous—about this show, though, is the way that Rice manages to preserve the raw feeling of the central love story while wrapping it tenderly in the production’s additional layers.
Those additional layers are many: there’s a lot going on here, and everything works. Contrasting with the leads’ tortured affair are two joyful romantic pairings among the supporting characters, played by Joseph Alessi, Annette McLaughlin, Beverly Rudd, and Stuart Mcloughlin in performances that epitomize charm. With support from additional musicians, they play several Coward songs that add feeling and dimension to the story. Rice also incorporates black-and-white video elements in a manner that both pays tribute to the production’s cinematic origins and harnesses the power of the big screen to wash over the audience; aptly, crashing waves are a recurring theme. Neil Murray’s set, the principal element of which is a passenger bridge spanning train tracks, is relatively simple but inventively used to support and extend the production’s other elements.
Brief Encounter is a virtuoso production, the kind of show that demonstrates just how rewarding theater can be and raises the bar for everyone else. Minneapolis is one of just three American stops the show is making, after winning swoons in San Francisco and New York. It’s a great catch for the Guthrie, and it’s well-worth going out of your way to see. Way out of your way.