‘Admirable Crichton’ was an unexpected delight

Portland Shakes' reading of James 'Peter Pan' Barrie's island-shipwreck satire is a neat companion to 'The Tempest'

Who knew that Sir James Matthew Barrie, the man who penned Peter Pan, was such a brilliant and merciless satirist? Well, certainly whomever had the pleasure of catching Portland Shakes’ three-date stint of staged readings of The Admirable Crichton in rep with The Tempest. Barrie’s turn-of-last-century sendup of the British class system is equal parts Pride & Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, and Gilligan’s Island…and Shakes’ treatment was hilarious.

A pre-Gilligan adventure: from the 1975 British film version,  directed by Lewis Gilbert.

A pre-Gilligan adventure: from the 1975 British film version, directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Title character Crichton is the butler in a home owned by one Lord Loam, a well-meaning old rich guy whose half-baked theories of social equality not only annoy his three daughters and his fellow aristocrats, but also frankly creep out his servants. Undaunted, Loam forces his servants and his family to dine together once a month while Crichton ironically bristles, insisting that hierarchy is more “natural” than egalitarianism. The three Loam daughters, their socialite cousin Ernest, and their friend Lord Brockelhurst huffily agree, remarking what an ideal butler Crichton is for maintaining his inferior “place.”

The Loam family embarks on a sea voyage with their butler, a handmaiden, and a priest—which sounds like the setup for a joke, and in a way, it is. Spoiler alert: they shipwreck, and we see their first rough days on a desert island, then jump ahead two years to see how they’re getting on. Though Crichton is consistent in his belief that one man should rule over another, it turns out he’s flexible on the matter of which man should lead. With his “may the best man win” approach, he finds himself the most capable survivalist on the island, and has gradually rearranged the group’s hierarchy beneath him, proclaiming this new order as “natural” as the last.

With the rigors of their final Tempest performance behind them last Sunday, the actors let loose in this comparative cake-walk. Scripts in hand, they twinkled and hammed up the hilarious mannerisms that the wry narrator (David Bodin) described. Matthew Kerrigan, fresh out of his crude and piteous Caliban role, preened and smirked as the foppish, self-satisfied Ernest. Sam Dinkowitz, still playing the fool after a turn as Stephano, drooped his eyes and affected a ridiculous king’s-English lisp as Loam’s dimwitted would-be son-in-law Lord Brockelhurst. Clara-Liis Hillier and Foss Curtis, who’d just played fairies, and Susannah Jones, who’d been Miranda, abandoned their better graces and flared their nostrils in haughty disdain as Loam’s lazy, snotty (proto-Kardashian?) daughters. And emerging ART golden boy Joshua Weinstein, who’d given his role as The Tempest’s prince a Disneyish innocence, regained his composure as the uptight-but-reliable Crichton.

Sir James Barrie, about 1910. Library of Congress/Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Sir James Barrie, about 1910. Library of Congress/Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Crichton, a pre-Gilligan’s Island professor, builds his former masters an implausible new world: a log-cabin lodge with plumbing and electricity, a mill, new animal-skin clothes and hunting weapons—though for some reason, the three women only have one functional skirt among them, and they fight over it as fiercely as over Crichton’s affections. The island’s new king is benevolent to his old boss Loam, who becomes known simply as “Daddy.” He’s less indulgent of Ernest, warning him that he’ll dunk his head in a bucket every time he utters a smug witticism. (Both of those things end up happening a lot; it turns out that the “clever” Ernest is a slow learner.) The women and the priest (Andrew Stearns) adapt more readily, becoming healthy, athletic hunter-gatherers.

But Barrie’s skewed fable doesn’t end there.

Just as the new society is operating (relatively) smoothly, and Crichton has chosen the eldest Loam girl for his bride, a British ship comes to “rescue” the party. Dutifully citing “fair play,” Crichton lights a signal fire to guide them. They promptly return to society, and resume their old roles, conveniently editing Crichton’s heroism out of the stories they tell the papers and their society friends. Once again, it’s he who’s waiting upon them. One thing has changed, though: Lord Loam is no longer fond of fraternizing with the help.

The fact that the plot comes full-circle from shipwreck to rescue is the best reason for Portland Shakes to show Crichton in rep with The Tempest. The second-best reason is that Crichton director Jon Kretzu has a keen nose for pairings. His daring Durang/Crimp combo “States of Emergency” pretty much killed at Defunkt this spring, proving him a great script sommelier. Note: Anon It Moves is currently running Hamlet in rep with Tom Stoppard’s very-complementary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, maintaining the same casting in each. Are great offerings in rep the latest game-raiser among local theaters…or is library-diving for rarer or less-recognized works still the favorite sport? Doesn’t matter. Crichton scores twice.

The Admirable Crichton is less obscure than, say, Readers Theatre Rep’s retrospective of forgotten Irish playwright Theresa Deevy, or Bag & Baggage’s discovery of never-before-performed Love’s Labour’s Lost adaptation The Students. Crichton was popular enough to inspire a 1957 movie, and has seen the spotlight as recently as 2011 in Ontario, Canada’s Shaw Festival. Still, compared to the universally known Peter Pan and The Tempest, it remains a hidden treasure.

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