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Monday, August 12, 2013

Poplar Heroes

THANKS TO ITS OPENING MOMENT, “Heroes” assures us from the start that it won’t turn into too-talky BBC-type fare. That opening moment is silence. Long, long – for a piece of non-Pinter entertainment – silence. And when it’s broken, leading to Jonathan Epstein’s just-right placement of the punchline, we have a taste of the play’s character and quirkiness.

Robert Lohbauer (Henri), Jonathan Epstein (Gustave),
Malcolm Ingram (Phillipe). Photo by Kevin Sprague
And if Epstein’s character – the phlegmatic war-veteran Gustave – seems a little over-cynical, we’ll soon get a sense of why that’s so.

“Heroes” is a three-hander written in 2003 (as “Le vent des peupliers”) by Gérald Sibleyras, translated from the French and re-titled by Tom Stoppard. There’s a Stoppard-esque breeze to some of the dialogue, but it’s not a Stoppard show. The plot, such as it is, concerns Gustave and two other WWI vets, residents at a countryside home for old soldiers as 1959 comes to an end. It's part of the current Shakespeare & Co. season in Lenox, Mass., a season fancifully themed “rebellion and revolution,” and a production that runs through September 1.

Phillipe, played by Malcolm Ingram, is thoughtful and imaginative; too busy to correspond with his sister, but convinced of a birthday-related conspiracy at the home. He’s also given to sudden fainting spells. The cheerful Henri, who supports a gammy leg with a walking stick, is played by Robert Lohbauer. As we learn more about each man’s history, we better understand why it is they interact with one another as they do – as old friends who bicker and confide – and the common dream that draws them to an inevitable finish.

It’s a script of provocative nuance, in the vein of Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful 1984 film “A Sunday in the Country.” And the countryside is an important character – as the original title suggests, there’s a grove of poplars in view that reinforces the lure of a countryside to escape into, and frequent mention of animals reminds us of the imprisoning contrasts humans create as habitat.

Henri is bold enough to wander into a nearby village at one point, where he is charmed by a flock of schoolgirls: “They were all around me, like starlings, bursting into the alley from a side door. I was literally surrounded. They immediately showed the most profound respect for my leg and melted my heart with their shy sympathetic smiles.”

The veterans share a portico with a bronze dog that Phillipe, at least, believes animate, and which can’t be left behind should the soldiers embark on a much-discussed sortie to freedom. But does freedom await? As Henri muses, they’re likely only to find “a uncomfortable windy hilltop, and beyond it at best, a little valley strangely similar to the one we just left, only further off ... with the chance of another refuge like this one.”

“Heroes” is gentle, witty, thought-provoking, and sad. It gives us brilliant ensemble work by three masterful actors who explore every nuance of the words they speak. Michael Pfeiffer’s sound design reinforces the natural landscape, and Patrick Brennan’s set speaks of a general sense of decay.

The script doesn’t answer every question that’s raised, nor should it. We’re trusted to our own intelligence and imagination, a rare quality in popular entertainment. These are my kind of heroes.

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