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JEEVES TAKES CHARGE

at the Royal-George Theatre

JOSEPHINE: THE MOUSE SINGER

Chicago Actors Ensemble

"This is the time of night at which you catch me at my best," snorts a tipsy Bertie Wooster--Bright Young Thing, raconteur, twit--at the start of Jeeves Takes Charge. It's a hilarious moment--not because the line is intrinsically funny, but because it is so exactly what a Bertie Wooster would say to us if we happened to pop in on him for drinks at his club (the Drones, London W.1). Bertie is just the sort of jerk to think that he's at his "best" with a few drinks under his cummerbund; yet he is actually quite a good storyteller, with a knack for apt turns of phrase and an engaging, if unconscious, capacity for self-revelation.

The words Bertie speaks come from P.G. Wodehouse, whose "Bertie and Jeeves" stories delighted readers in the 1920s and '30s and today have a reputation as charming Anglophile nostalgia. Actor Edward Duke's canny adaptation of Wodehouse's writings into a one-man, two-act show can, I suppose, work on that soothing level. But Duke's pungent, satiric sensibility and the sheer vigor with which he brings Bertie and friends to life on the stage make for much fresher and funnier entertainment.

Within the first 20 minutes or so of Jeeves Takes Charge, we have learned--Bertie has told us--that Bertie employs a "hidebound reactionary" of a valet named Jeeves, who can fix anything (and who, we see, is far more in control than Bertie realizes), and that Bertie is engaged to an intimidating young lady named Florence, who won't marry him until he somehow intercepts the manuscript of his uncle's rather scandalous memoir, which the uncle has already sent to his publisher--unfortunately, Bertie is dependent on his uncle's money and so is loath to offend the old man. There--in his arrangement of the material--Duke has set forth the themes that he will play on throughout the evening: the moral, sexual, and intellectual impotence of British upper-class males at the twilight of the empire, dependent on their elders (including their servants) not only for material support but for guidance, hostile to and afraid of females, bound by standards of propriety they are neither capable nor desirous of upholding. The perpetually 24-year-old Bertie embodies everything that is corrupt and decadent about his class and his sex--yet he is such a charming, childlike fellow that we can't help but like him. In Bertie's infectious vitality Edward Duke makes us see the humanity behind the stereotype Bertie represents.

Far more elaborate than most one-man performance pieces, Jeeves is immediately noteworthy for Duke's amazing technique and versatility. "Amazing" is not a word I use lightly; Duke's lightning-fast character transformations really are breathtaking. He has perfected not only a whole set of voices for the different roles, but faces, walks, and physical attitudes to match. In the theatrical equivalent of a sprint, Duke darts back and forth between the capering, naughty-boyish Bertie, the glacially unflappable (and manipulatively Machiavellian) Jeeves, and the haughty, art-deco-angular Florence with Chaplinesque precision. In one particularly splendid bit, Duke portrays both sides of an argument between Bertie and Florence--she pulled up to imposing height, bending over him and staring him down, he doubled over backward in terrified retreat--and conveys not only each character's side of the battle but the spatial relationship between them, which really is the essence of the comic moment. Duke's prowess as an actor is complemented by finely detailed use of stage space and some dazzlingly quick costume and set changes; surely much credit is due the show's director, Gillian Lynne, who as choreographer of Cats proved that she knows the value of exactitude of bodily attitude in revealing character, and to designer Carl Toms.

Bertie, Jeeves, and Florence are only the most fully and memorably developed in a menagerie of eccentric types that also includes Bertie's "mastodon" of an aunt, an assortment of squealy schoolgirls and snooty Boy Scouts, and Bertie's school chum, the terminally nerdy Gussie Fink-Nottle, whose pet passion (literally) is the newt, an animal species he not only admires but resembles.

Where act one of Jeeves is devoted to anecdotal narrative and shrewd character development, the second half is given over to collegiate high jinks: Bertie gets Gussie drunk; Gussie then hands out academic awards to the other schoolboys, unleashing a torrent of sarcastic venom (here, again, is the subversive attack on proper behavior that lies at the core of Wodehouse's comedy); and Bertie wraps the whole affair up with an extended song-and-dance routine that recalls an Edwardian Gong Show. Such silliness is full of easy and frequent laughs--just the thing for the kiddies and Monty Python freaks--but, like the more sophisticated and more piquant first act, it is performed with sublime vocal and physical technique. (Gussie's inebriated fall over the punch table, for instance, is a masterpiece of theatrical economy.) Edward Duke's achievement is that he makes it all look so simple--the multiple characters, the deftly delivered language, the perfectly gauged stage presence, the feat of memory by which he has absorbed Wodehouse's wry and quirky language, so richly observant and wittily phrased.

Chicago Actors Ensemble's staging of Michael McClure's Josephine: The Mouse Singer is running for free (though a donation is solicited after the show) for a scant two-weekend run (it closes this Sunday) as part of CAE's Uptown Free Theatre Series (next up is Murray Schisgal's Luv at the end of the month). As I sat in the company's fifth-floor loft in the Peoples Church trying to catch the breeze from the fan in the un-air-conditioned space, I thought, "Free theater in Uptown in this weather? Are these people crazy?" But good art is never crazy.

Josephine is as simple as Jeeves is elaborate, but it celebrates the same theatrical virtue: the ability of good actors to transform carefully chosen movement and sound into emotion, to create feeling through disciplined physical and vocal technique. Based on a Franz Kafka story and heavily influenced by Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, Josephine is a fable about a tribe of hardworking, dronelike mice whose one artistically inclined member, the singer Josephine, asks for a reprieve from her duties so she can concentrate on developing her art. The mice admire and applaud Josephine, but they don't really understand her; her request is denied despite her argument that her singing is a service that enriches the tribe emotionally and brings them together communally.

In her "heroic" and foolish quest for perfection, Josephine increasingly cuts herself off from the other mice; so her music is increasingly less relevant to them and less connected to her own mouse identity. Yet the more she cuts herself off from her people, the more beautiful Josephine's music seems to them; finally, when she has disappeared altogether, the tribe is left with only the memory of her art--and that, the play suggests, is perhaps all that really matters anyway.

Josephine is a challenging and troubling fable--about the price of artistic talent, the give-and-take between art and stardom, the tension between an artist and an audience who can only appreciate the artist according to their own limited perspective. Despite the story's mythic quality and its roots in Kafka's time and place, I think playwright McClure had very much in mind the phenomenon of rock stardom--the glory and the torment of such spirits as Janis Joplin and the Beatles, not the prefab show-biz types who populate the scene today. Josephine's music, we are frequently reminded, is really just a form of "folk piping" taken to a new height by her personal involvement; its populist roots give it more meaning to the mice, but ultimately make them place less value on it than a more elitist society places on "art" music. And the personal cost through which a real person is transformed into myth in her own life as well as in the public's perception is very much on McClure's mind.

Clad simply in tights and leotards, with rope belts for tails and, occasionally, strips of red cloth to represent blood, the Chicago Actors Ensemble starts out dangerously close to Disneyfied cute mouse imitations; but soon they have revealed a consistent and coherent language of words, sounds, and physical moves that, with the accompaniment of pulsing percussion music from the sidelines, intriguingly evokes a sense of tribal community and timeless mystery. In her directorial debut, Jillian Hanson stages the play as a nearly nonstop flow of motion, dance- and mime-based and quite beautiful to watch. In a superbly unified and well-trained ensemble, especially strong impressions are made by Bruce Turk as Josephine's suicidal would-be lover, Lewis Bossing as the narrator, and Nancy Kresin as the driven, intense Josephine.

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