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Brief Encounter director Emma Rice in Time Out NY

Roundabout’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER begins previews at Studio 54 on Broadway this Friday, where it opens officially on Tuesday, September 28th.

Time Out New York

September 8, 2010



Kneehigh Theatre

The inventive U.K. troupe brings two shows to New York this fall.

By Helen Shaw

Considering that a founding principle of the English physical-theater troupe Kneehigh is deliberate isolation in rugged, far-off Cornwall, it sure does get out a lot. This fall, the group will see its Brief Encounter open at Studio 54, in a coproduction with Roundabout Theatre Company, then its revival of the award-winning The Red Shoes waltzes into St. Ann’s Warehouse in November. Blanketing the city in Kneehigh wasn’t exactly the plan, says joint artistic director and ebullient spirit Emma Rice, but, she notes, “there will be some amazing parties.”

Rice, who directs both productions, seems unfazed by the looming workload. A radiantly cheerful woman, white-blond hair running slightly amok, Rice charges up and down stairs backstage at Studio 54, hugging actresses and reveling in the legendary venue’s atmosphere. It’s lucky that Rice has so much energy, since a lot depends on her. When asked about the aesthetic through line in Kneehigh’s current repertory, she replies: “It’s me. The work is incredibly personal.” These two pieces do form a sort of parentheses for her: The Red Shoes, devised ten years ago, was Rice’s first fully realized work as a director.

When Brief Encounter played St. Ann’s last December, rapturous reviews (TONY’s own David Cote invoked stage titans Complicite and Improbable) helped turn it into an A-list holiday attraction. Audiences got so drunk on the come-party-with-us vibe, they had to be literally shooed from the building. Based on Noël Coward’s 1936 one-act Still Life and David Lean’s film of the same, Brief Encounter relates the star-crossed tale of a couple who fall in love, despite being married to other people. In Kneehigh’s version, full of swooning cinematic visuals, Rice’s trademark insouciance lightens the atmosphere. The flexible, musical company is constantly swinging into upbeat numbers, even pursuing the audience into the lobby to play time-warped covers of modern songs. (“Destiny’s Child on ukulele!” crows Rice. “There is nothing better!”)

Despite the interdisciplinary sleight-of-hand, the adaptation is lovingly sincere. Rice seems firmly anti-irony, and over time the show has become even more intimately connected to its creator. “The play is like a lifetime in five acts,” Rice notes. “Now, I have got a faulty valve when it comes to love. I’ve been married and…I’m not married now. I find myself aging through the piece. When I see it now, I say, ‘Oh! I’ve finally moved on to Act IV!’?”

While Rice waxes philosophical, Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes had a more levelheaded response to the show. He wanted to get something “more creative” in the Roundabout’s tradition-heavy rotation, and he had a singular venue to fill. “We’re putting tables back into Studio 54,” he notes proudly, referring to the production’s enveloping, environmental cabaret design. Although St. Ann’s plays no part in the transfer, Susan Feldman—the Dumbo venue’s founder—sounds thrilled about the move. “Studio 54 is an inspired choice, with its history of transgression and wildness,” Feldman remarks. Mostly, she quickly admits, “I’m just so happy they’re all back in town!” Her fondness for the company led to her snapping up The Red Shoes after catching it this summer at the company’s Cornish headquarters.

Where Brief Encounter fuses daffy holiday pantomime with the three-hanky weepie, The Red Shoes works its magic with darker, Brechtian motifs. Rice describes her vaudevillian retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale as “the folktale for an artist, because it’s how you live your life once you’ve named your obsessions.” Forget Moira Shearer, wafting through the 1948 film. This time, the bewitched girl is a clog dancer, who consults with a butcher when her feet won’t give her a rest. (This one is, as the company says, “for adults and brave children.”)

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