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A CurtainUp Review
Every Good Boy Deserves Favor

Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, a collaborative effort between playwright Tom Stoppard and composer Andre Previn, calls for a full orchestra. Not surprisingly, it's not often performed, and when it is, it may be the adapted chamber music version. But this performance by the Wilma Theater with an orchestra the calibre of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a rare occurrence indeed. The performance takes place in Verizon Hall of the magnificent new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

First presented in London in 1977 for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, EGBDF was an experiment; by now in 2002, the year of the Queen's Golden Jubilee, it is a kind of retrospective. This is a play about Soviet repression, and while repression certainly still exists in the world today, the world's attention seems focused on different problems.

The evening begins with Dmitri Shostakovich opening for Andre Previn, something akin to the Stones opening for Manilow. Mistake? Maybe not. The somber, elegant Shostakovich Chamber Symphony, Op.11a, while a hard act to follow, establishes the tone for the play's back story. The play begins after the intermission.

This is political theatre, a story told through the device of a mental patient and a political prisoner who share the same name, Alexander Ivanov --a fact critical for the denouement-- and also share the same cell or "ward," as the "hospital" staff must refer to it. We see that punishment and mental treatment are intimately related, as anti-Soviet agitators are placed in government psychiatric hospitals. The story is told of a dissident who was arrested for saying that sane people were being put in mental hospitals. The dissident was put in prison for being sane when he said it. The play may be political, but it certainly amuses: "I have no symptoms, I have opinions," the patient/prisoner complains. The doctor responds, "Your opinions ARE your symptoms." Jokes float on the surface of more profound concerns.

The dissident Alexander Ivanov, honorably embodied by Richard Easton, is willing to die for his principles. The mad Ivanov, in an inspired performance by David Strathairn, hears music and conducts his orchestra. The real orchestra becomes the orchestra in his head. Sometimes the conductor, Rossen Milanov, and musicians go through the motions of playing, but no sound is produced, but when the music actually plays, we can hear the music that Ivanov hears. The lushness of the sound plays against the harshness of the cell.

Stoppard has written this play in remarkably minimal pieces, which, under Jiri Zizka's direction, happen in different stage areas, with sections of the orchestra placed in between. The set is designed by Anne Patterson. A painted backdrop of subdued color fields, lines, and figures receives projections of stalwart comrades in stone or of eyes watching. Three platforms connected by walkways are the performance spaces. The lighting by John Stephen Hoey is just fantastic. Stark spotlights, the orchestra's lights, and stage lights all work with the musicians and actors in an arts fusion.

This is not a play with music on the side, but a play with music embedded in its fabric. Or it is music with a play situated in it? The quality of the sound is wonderful. Previn's music, however, could be stronger and ought to build and fuse more with the action at the end. All the actors are marvelous. The teacher (Polly Holliday) is crisp yet warm. Young Sasha, prisoner's son, is played by Dennis Michael Hall with poise beyond his years and a beautiful voice. The doctor is played with charm and intelligence by Paul Hecht.

This play is a very peculiar mix of funny, light, and contrived vs grim, stark, and ominous. The end involves a Colonel-ex-machina. The solution is crazy and quick, but the play has been set up for it, like a joke is set up, and it is perfect in its place. Tom Stoppard, who was in the audience, received a standing ovation.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favor
Playwright, Tom Stoppard
Composer, Andre Previn
Directed by Jiri Zizka
Conductor, Rossen Milanov
Cast: Richard Easton, Dennis Michael Hall, Paul Hecht, Polly Holliday, David Howey, David Strathairn
Set Design: Anne Patterson
Lighting Design: John Stephen Hoey
Sound Design: Sakini Moultrie
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz Running time 2 hrs with one 15 min intermission 11/20/02-11/26/02; opening 11/20/02

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 11/20 performance
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