Belt Up, a theater company known for its unique literary adaptations, has in recent years become the toast of the international fringe festival held each August in Edinburgh, Scotland.
This weekend three members of the troupe traveled from their home base in York, England, to participate in British Invasion 2012 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, allowing local theater-goers to sample a brand of theater that examines childhood from a decidedly adult perspective.
Belt Up brought three of their pieces and my schedule allowed me to see two – “Outland,” inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, and “The Boy James,” which uses the notion of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland as its point of departure. Each show is performed impeccably in an intimate backstage space created specifically for the Belt Up folks.
A word of caution to the timid: Both “Outland” and “The Boy James” rely heavily on audience interaction. Any theatergoer stands an excellent chance of being pulled into the action.
“Outland” addresses one of the sublime gifts of childhood – the ability to dream, to imagine other worlds, and worlds within worlds. “The Boy James” looks at that as well but its main concern is the inevitable, painful loss of childhood
I found “Outland,” written by Dominic Allen, to be the more effective piece. Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) is, of course, best known as the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” but Allen’s play is derived from a later, less familiar novel, “Sylvie and Bruno,” as well as the belief that Dodgson suffered from a form of epilepsy that may have stimulated his imaginative powers.
The play depicts the “real” world, in which Dodgson (played by Allen) visits Arthur (Jethro Compton) and Muriel (Serena Manteghi), young adults who as children had inspired Dodgson during idyllic summers of dreaming, playing and creating imaginary worlds. That narrative alternates with scenes from “Sylvie and Bruno,” set in parallel universes: Reality as we know it as well as Outland and Fairyland.
Theatergoers might benefit by honing up on their Lewis Carroll scholarship if they expect to follow the intricately structured show. But even though there were moments when I was utterly lost, the play is a powerful portrait of Dodgson accepting his demise as his health deteriorates. His only consolation is that his fantasy worlds will always be available. Allen’s performance is exceptional.
By comparison, “The Boy James,” written by Alexander Wright, is fairly oblique, depicting a Boy (Compton) dressed in pajamas greeting theatergoers as they enter. He involves them in game in which one audience member must be a detective trying to solving a murder, and at one point asks the viewers to hide their eyes. He is visited by an adult, James (Allen), whom the Boy expects to take him on an “adventure,” but James grimly informs him that adventures are no longer possible and leaves a letter for him. Later the Boy is visited by a Girl (Manteghi), whose initial wide-eyed innocence gives way to sexual aggression, which terrifies the Boy. Ultimately, he is left alone – presumably to face the inevitable loss of childhood whimsy.
Each show derives much of its effectiveness from the performance space itself. The Belt Up artists apparently were given license to ransack the MET’s voluminous stores of props and set pieces, and the result is a tent-like time capsule with the feel of a crowded Victorian parlor. Thick rugs and tapestries and vintage furniture create an intoxicating, unique environment.
This work, I can say with out exaggeration, is mind-bending. It toys with perceptions of reality and sends the audience home with a lot to think about. Would that all plays could do that.