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Gray Garden

An Absent Older Brother's Gift to His Younger Sibling Adds Color to An Otherwise Perfunctory Life

Ben Phillips (left) chats wth Mary Pearson in Silhouette

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/4/2009

As Mary Pearson and Britt Jurgensen push, pull, and spin a table on wheels and a portable closet across the Theatre Project's tight stage and Ben Phillips darts between them as if passing cars, the three versatile members of Fool's Proof Theatre turn this stark stage into a fanciful version of New York. Phillips' Marvin has just arrived from Germany in pursuit of his brother Jonathan (also played by Phillips), whom he hasn't seen in 20 years. Marvin is a rather OCD BBC radio reporter, a man so used to order that he makes an oral diary of his life on cassette tapes and barely notices that his co-worker Julie (Pearson) has a mammoth crush on him. No, once calm, collected Marvin receives a postcard from Jonathan with a return address in Germany, he's compelled to find him, flashing back to the night Jonathan left--and was supposed to take him with him.

The ensuing journey, over both physical distance and memory, is the plot of the dramatic comedy The Eagle Has Landed, the play the Liverpool-based Fool's Proof developed in conjunction with Linda Kerr Scott of London's Complicite theater group. The play itself is less concerned with what Marvin learns about his brother than what he learns about himself during this process. And while such a theme is fairly pedestrian, the three performers realize it with such versatile enthusiasm and imaginative brio that Eagle becomes an impressive showcase for Fool's Proof doing so much with so little.

Very little: Eagle dresses its stage starkly, with only that rolling table, the wheeled closet, and a chair. These three items become cars, prison bars, a café's interior, a performance artist's apartment, a German flat, Marvin's Spartan home, and the BBC research office where Julie works. Marvin's suitcase makes a few appearances, but outside his tape recorder, the small box in which he stores his cassettes, a black leather jacket he inherits from his brother, and the black-framed glasses Marvin wears, the play relies little on props. And everything and everybody is outfitted in gray tones--Marvin's gray shirt and charcoal pants and Julie's prim professional skirt suit. It's a monochromatic mood that characterizes Marvin's life before his globetrotting adventure, a life so muted and neutral it may as well be unexamined.

The only times color enters the stage is when Marvin sets off in search of Jonathan, armed only with the return address in Germany. There, he meets a woman (Jurgensen) with whom Jonathan lived a brief spell, but many years ago. Clad in a blue-green floral print dress, she tells Marvin about his brother. And just like that Eagle flashes back as Phillips removes the glasses to become Jonathan, and he and the woman are involved and living together, parting on less than amicable terms. She gives Marvin the leather jacket, and his next clue takes him to New York, where Jonathan lived as one side of a love triangle with female performance artist (Pearson) and her female lover (Jurgensen). The trail eventually leads Marvin to a remote New Mexico café and a Mexican prison.

En route, Marvin learns a bit more about Jonathan the womanizer and opportunist, thanks to the women who dotted his life. Kudos to Pearson and Jurgensen, who each juggle a handful of roles with wit and energy. Pearson, especially, delights as the jaded, sensuous performance artist, a stoic cowboy in New Mexico, and the eternally bubbly Julie, a character who deserves her own play or at least a reality show. (And both Jurgensen and Pearson have a ball morphing from the Mexican prostitutes who rob Marvin one minute and the nuns who take care of him the next.)

But Phillips carries most of the play, creating in Marvin a man who is a tad pitiful but remains sympathetic and, in Jonathan, a man who has to be charismatic enough to make you believe a string of women could fall for him. It's a delicate balancing act, and Phillips wisely doesn't try to create two entirely different people, but characterizes the brothers as different aspects the same man. Phillips speaks as an almost school-boyish nerd as Marvin, and becomes a confident experience seeker as the live-wire Jonathan, and as Marvin follows in Jonathan's literal footsteps, aspects of Jonathan slowly begin to surface in Marvin--suggesting that, just maybe, searching for Jonathan is more important for Marvin than finding him. And it all takes place at a nearly break-neck speed. Briskly plotted--one act unwinding in just more than an hour--and full of constant motion and witty stagings, The Eagle Has Landed is less about story per se than the deft and spirited telling of it.

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Tags: Theatre Project, The eagle has landed

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