British Invasion: ‘Adam and Eve,’ ‘Robertson’s Crusoe’ offer quality performances of unique material

Was there nothing before there was something? Or was there something else? Something that came before? Something we can conceptualize but can’t see?

Those heady questions are woven into two of the performances I caught Friday as part of the British Invasion, running through Dec. 16 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. The shows were different in tone but equally absorbing. One was posed at first glance as light entertainment, a clever two-actor adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” in which two newly formed humans – the mythological progenitors of our species – discover the world with a sense of wonder and whose dream-world vanishes after they partake of forbidden fruit.

The other, “Robertson’s Crusoe,” was a complex, kaleidoscopic, multi-character contemplation of our loneliness as individuals, as a species and as a planet.

This is the third edition of the British Invasion, an annual undertaking in which Bob Paisley through his Central Standard Theatre invites talented writers and performers from the United Kingdom to Kansas City. As we’ve come to expect, the Brits demonstrate that the marriage of good writing and high performance skills yields work that is both brainy and entertaining. That really shouldn’t be so unusual, but American artists tend to approach performance in a more visceral way, as if explosive emotions are enough to define the human experience.

“The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” written by Elton Townend Jones and directed by Guy Masterson, has a decidedly British tone, although much of the essential Twain humor is still there. Jones performs the piece with his wife, Rebecca Vaughan (an actress we’ve seen in previous editions of the Invasion) and they are, without question, a most appealing stage couple.

The intentional anachronisms and incongruities – reading newspapers in beach chairs, for example – add to the charm of the piece. And the show’s tone changes significantly. Early on, they are innocents who have no idea why they are in the Garden of Eden. Adam simply wants to occupy the moment without distractions. Eve is burning up with curiosity about the miraculous world they inhabit, continually jotting down thoughts and observations in her diary.

Gradually they fall in love, of course, although they don’t fully understand why or what it means. And eventually Eve takes a bit of the forbidden apple, unleashing a chaotic universe that destroys the dreamlike existence of the Garden forever. At last they are fully human, facing a hostile world and the work, sacrifice and hardships of existence.

Gavin Robertson proves, among other things, that mime doesn’t have to be annoying. In his “Robertson’s Crusoe,” he weaves together a series of characters and narrative threads which eventually coalesce into a though-provoking whole. He’s an eloquent writer but much of the performance relies on his physical theater skills, which are exceptional. The director is Nicholas Collett

Performing in a black suit and open-collar black shirt (and without clown white), Robertson creates vivid images – cityscapes, urban bustle, deserted beaches, a flat ocean horizon. His characters include a professional killer, a man descending into Alzheimer’s, a man discussing his failed relationships and a castaway on a desert island. There’s also a discussion of the Big Bang Theory and Robertson ties it all together into a fascinating reflection on isolation. Much of it is sobering but a sharp-edged sense of humor also runs through the piece.

Integral to the theatricality of the show is Danny Bright’s original music and a sound design that helps move us from location to location.

Both of these shows are demonstrate a carefully calibrated tone. The actors are in total command of their material and the results are impressive.