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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
For a sophisticated and subtle comedy that packs a punch at the business of espionage, you may want to check out Washington Shakespeare Company's mounting of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood. Written in 1988 (with a revision in 1994) it moves quickly and requires focus on the part of its audience. Some of the British references are hard to catch, but on the whole, it's a mix of The Avengers with a dash of The Man from U.N.C.L.E and a pinch of James Bond.
Mr. Stoppard melds twins, quantum physics, and the ever elusive "unseen enemy" as his story revolves around British secret agents searching for a mole within their own ranks. Sensitive documents are being leaked to the Russian KGB about the latest Star Wars-style defense weapon and all clues lead to Mrs. Hapgood's team of spies.
Mrs. Hapgood is herself an 80's Emma Peel: a master of all trades who's breaking the bureaucratic rules while coolly making jokes and catching villains. She keeps three steps ahead of the men around her, maintains her Mother of the Year status and plays a mean game of chess. No doubt like Martha Stewart, she makes her own paper, harvests her own wheat and keeps abreast of all the latest developments in technology. The kind of character we love to read about in books or see in films.
Surrounding Mrs. Hapgood are the dashing Ridley, the fumbling Merryweather, the annoying American CIA agent Wates and the supportive, yet ever suspicious boss, Blair. There's also her double agent informer Kerner and the secret they share together.
Mr. Stoppard uses his script to show how the espionage game is a self-creating industry. None of the agents in Hapgood grasp or seem to care about the fact that the billion dollar weapon they are trying to preserve will never work -- even if it is assembled. Never asking why they are doing what they do, they simply subsist on the "game" and the thrill it provides. Who dies, and what they're defending or accomplishing is really unimportant; in the end it's about the competition.
Kathleen Akerley's Mrs. Hapgood is easily likeable and comes across as a feminist version of James Bond. She charms all the men around her and uses them to her advantage throughout the story. As double agent Kerner, Bruce Alan Rauscher offers a nice dose of scientific ambiguity and a realistic romantic entanglement for the play's heroine.
Hugh T. Owen in the role of Ridley is the voice of reason while at the same time the most honest about his motives for being an agent. Theodore M. Snead is the arrogant Wates; filled with CIA training, he sees villains behind every shrub.
Co-directed by Christopher Henley and Alexandra Hoge, the comedy flows nicely. The hard spots are in its very dry British manner of humor. Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden's set is fun with a fucsia/black color scheme and huge cutout figures. And Erik Trester's sound design gives the show a very 60's spy film feel.
A treat for Stoppard fans who like the playwright's multi-level style of writing -- he's satirizing the super spies in films and books, making a political statement on government defense programs and introducing his audience to string theory physics, all at the same time. For the rest of us, WSC's production is a revisit with a grown up Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
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