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A-Pantomime Review

Theater Review

Gustave Johnson and Tom Wolfson in Derek Walcott’s “Pantomime.”

‘Pantomime’ uses comedy to take a serious look at roles
By Sue Harrison
Banner Staff

What happens when two middle-aged guys flee the worlds they have always known and wind up on the same tropical island, one as the owner of a hotel, the other as his servant? And what if they looked at a role-reversal play as part of the hotel’s entertainment? That is the thread that weaves the storyline of Derek Walcott’s “Pantomime” together and gives audiences a two-hour non-stop romp through cliché, humor, drama, societal roles and most interestingly, self image.

“Pantomime” is performed at Payomet Performing Arts (see ticket information below.) through Sept. 2.

Vernice Miller gives razor sharp direction to the two emotionally shipwrecked men — Tom Wolfson as Harry Trewe, the expatriate Englishman running the run down hotel on Tobago, and Gustave Johnson as the black former calypso singer who is the hotel’s single employee.

The play opens in the off season with no guests on hand or in sight. Trewe fills his time by working on a panto — which derives from pantomime — a traditional form of light theater put on around the Christmas period. The pantos often featured gender reversals and were based on familiar stories like Goldilocks.

Trewe is working on some take offs on Christmas carols in which he is telling the Robinson Crusoe story. His gimmick for the panto is not a gender reversal but a race reversal. He wants Phillip to play the part of Crusoe, the educated and resourceful shipwrecked Englishman while he will play Friday, the black cannibal.

Meanwhile, Phillip is trying to serve breakfast and Trewe is stripping down to his underwear to “get into character.”

“Don’t get into your part, get into your pants,” Phillip urges and though Trewe is the boss and Phillip the servant, we see the first reversal with Phillip is being the more restrained and mannerly while Trewe is behaving without regard for customs. Phillip doesn’t want to be in the play, Trewe insists and when Phillip does embrace his new “role” and takes over, Treweis unbearably uncomfortable and wants to call the whole thing off.

Throughout the play the two men shift back and forth between the sophisticate and the rube, the mannered and the lewd, the well spoken and the babbler, the intelligent and the not so bright. The shifts are rapid and sometimes happen without the audience even being aware that it has and  at other times each becomes a caricature of himself or of what he imagines the other to actually be.

The Robinson Crusoe story merges with the life story of each man as they dip back and forth from fiction to memory and sometimes, fictionalized memory.

Trewe has lost a wife and son and abandoned a stage career in England. Phillip has left the wild streets of Trinidad — where he was a singer — under what is alluded to as an attempt to escape punishment for a violent crime.

The set is basic, the veranda of the hotel overlooking a steep cliff down to the beach. The men’s shirts unbuttoned halfway down their chests manage to evoke the feeling of the ever-present heat.

Both actors do a terrific job with the twists and turns in their characters but Johnson as Phillip gets many of the standout lines to work with and he takes them and runs.

Wolfson is spot on as the smarmy Englishman all full of himself and thinking he’s above being prejudiced who finds he cannot bear looking into the mirror created by Phillip to see himself as he really might be.

And while the whole reason for a panto is to have light diversion, as the two men start to create theirs it leads to some very dramatic moments.

“In the sun that never sets,” says Phillip referring to the British empire, “I am your shadow” he says, referring to the numerous native groups converted entirely into servant classes. He later continues, “We are acting out the history of imperialism” causing Trewe to retort, “If it becomes more serious we are in danger of committing art.”

The panto takes on another role in the play as it becomes a way for each to confront his past and find some resolution, or perhaps not. In the second act Phillip says they must finish the panto but Trewe now resists.

Each character reaches deep to expose his core but the layers are too complex and we can never be sure of what we are seeing.

One thing for sure, it’s definitely worth seeing this play and maybe finding a few of your own beliefs rocked.

“Pantomime” plays at Payomet Performing Arts in Truro Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m. through Sept. 2. Tickets are $5 to $20 by calling (508) 487-5400.