Friday, November 28, 2014
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Geriatric antics at the Lantern

Tom Stoppard's "Heroes" is as funny as it can be, if lacking in rigor.

Geriatric antics at the Lantern

Peter DeLaurier as Henri and Dan Kern as Gustave in Lantern Theater Company’s production of Heroes. (Lantern Theater Company / Mark Garvin)
Peter DeLaurier as Henri and Dan Kern as Gustave in Lantern Theater Company’s production of Heroes. (Lantern Theater Company / Mark Garvin)

A sumptuous—but inert, windless—terrace is overlooked by an iconic stone dog. Philipe insists that the dog moves. Henri, troubled by his friend’s slip into madness, suggests that they drag the statue out of sight.

Gustave deliberates between the two and decides, perhaps out of boredom, that it’s nicer to believe the dog is coming to life.

Tom Stoppard’s Heroes is a translation and adaptation of French playwright’s Gerald Sibleyras’ Le Vent des Peupliers (“The Wind in the Poplars”). In it, cheerful, enthusiastic Henri, happily interned in a veterans’ home for 25 years, confronts the greatest challenge to his pride and happiness when his fellow inmates choose madness over sanity.

In order to stave off deadly boredom and to play at power and independence, Gustave instigates a series of aborted antics: defending their isolated terrace from other inmates (in a properly warlike manner), seducing a young schoolteacher in the nearby town, and most importantly, trekking up a hill and across a river to reach an iconic stand of poplars, where he can see the wind blowing.

Henri cannot see the point—or the poplars. (He is, literally, nearsighted; this is one of the reasons for his relentless grip on reality.) After much cajoling, he almost joins in, even helping to plan the journey, but when Gustave insists on taking the life-sized stone dog up the hill with them, Henri can no longer tolerate what he considers frivolous, pointless, and insane.

M. Craig Getting’s production at the Lantern Theater makes a deliberate choice to take these trials, tribulations, and antics lightly.

In an interview with the Telegraph back in ’05, both Stoppard and Sibleyras acknowledged the similarity between their terrace and 1950’s old soldiers’ home, and Samuel Beckett’s bleak vision of postwar meaninglessness in Waiting for Godot. The wind, with its life-giving motion, never reaches it; on the horizon, beyond the protagonist’s range of sight, is an unreachable stand of lovely poplars; behind is the home itself, province of anodyne birthday celebrations and overbearing, Mephistophelian nun-caretakers.

Men who have outlived their usefulness populate the home. Fainting fits, dementia, wartime injuries, the rapid depletion of their various organs and parts, and sexual impotency are their daily troubles. The only events are birthdays and deaths, both of which, argues Philipe, are planned by the nuns.

But while Beckett’s meaninglessness, boredom, and madness remain the characters’ greatest antagonists, Getting’s production puts as much distance as possible between itself and the Irish minimalist. “…the play is full of wit and laughter; it is not maudlin,” proclaims the press release. Nick Embree’s set is a naturalistic terrace, which remains the same from start to finish. A galumphing, ragtime tuba riff introduces the play and overlays the scene changes, suggesting a closer relationship with Hogan’s Heroes than Vladimir and Estragon.

In the final moments of the play, which liken the men to geese flying in a V (taking turns leading), Henri finally gives himself over to the Gustave’s plot. As they raise their arms like wings and gaze into the distance at an unseen flock, to the audience’s great delight, the dog’s head turns to look with them over the poplars.

Happiness and fullness are only achievable, for Henri, when he lets go of reality and gives in a comfortable madness.

It is hard to say whether this conclusion is naive or cynical. The moral here—you have to forget reality and give yourself over to magic—might have been complicated by the frightful imminence of the characters’ old age, or the unavoidable failure of their mission up to the poplars, but is presented here without a sneer or a trace of irony.

The dramaturgical strengths of the play are in its inventiveness and the complex, fully realized characters. Henri is, from the start, the most cheerful of the bunch, and yet he is the one who attempts to hold onto reality the longest, and poo-poos the childish antics.

In the end, the production is fun, warm and likeable. There is no standout performance. Peter DeLaurier, Dan Kern, and Mal Whyte are all accomplished actors and their ensemble is tight.

Don’t expect dramaturgical deftness, or intellectual rigor—because neither are particularly evident—or to have your conceptions and prejudices challenged. Go expecting to laugh out loud with an audience genuinely enjoying itself.

Heroes runs until June 16th. Buy tickets here.

Julius Ferraro Art Attack
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Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

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