THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, Next Theatre Company. Steve Pickering's highly impressionistic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel occupies that ambiguous territory between genuine inspiration and unmitigated pretension and chutzpah. Citing Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa as his inspiration, Pickering has fashioned a pantomime and dance work that boils the novel down to its basic themes using grotesquely masked actors, ethereal costumes, an eccentric musical score, and an off- stage narrator.
The novel is, first, an adventure tale about an old man's struggle to reel in an unbelievably large marlin and, second, an allegory about old age and death layered with Christian symbolism. Pickering's The Old Man and the Sea is all symbol, with no plot or characters, only images and representations of such concepts as old age, departed youth, death, and masculinity. This is essentially a series of tableaux, of theatrical paintings.
Certainly nothing here equals the beauty in any Kurosawa frame, but some of the images Pickering creates are intriguing and evocative, as actors costumed as sea creatures torment the decrepit Old Man in his beautifully built boat. But virtually every aspect of Pickering's Next Theatre production is so flawed that the play is never sublime, merely pompous and excruciating. The actors' movements are more clumsy than graceful or fishlike, the costumes more cheesy than beautiful, and worst of all, Pickering's narration on the night I attended was so overblown and laden with Garrison Keillor-esque bluster that it clashed directly with the subtlety and delicacy of the images he'd created. This production is never unintentionally funny, but it comes awfully close on a number of ostensibly profound and solemn occasions.