Reading Roald Dahl as a child one never knows what to expect. Gently cajoled by this Willy Wonka of short story writing, one frequently finds oneself inhabiting a world of gigantic talking insects and chocolate-stirring midgets, without so much as a thought for reality.
Reading Dahl as an adult one expects the unexpected. Moving out of the sphere of hammer-horror aunties and Big Friendly Giants, Dahl's work takes on a hard, almost cynical edge, devoid of heroes and happy endings. Characters inhabit the same loony territory of Dahl's children's books, but the fantasy is more menacing, more psychological. That which delights the imagination in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny, The Champion of the World warps it in the writer's adult fiction. Dan Fields' adaptation of four Tales of the Unexpected for Finesilver Shows, explores Dahl's "Twilight Zone".
In The Landlady, the first of Fields' adaptations, Joan Rosenfels plays a ghoulish Bed & Breakfast proprietor. A portrait of Dahl's quintessential cantankerous old hag, dressed in a loose frock that exaggerates a pale and skinny physique, the apparently congenial lady lures an incredulous youth into her trap. Against Michael Mulder's eerie soundscape and Tyler Micoleau's bold lights, Sky Lanigan's harmless cartoon-cardboard set of pencil-patterned designs and two-dimensional objects suddenly takes on a sinister aspect. With wide-eyed, good-natured goofiness, Derek Milman as Billy Weaver, sits gingerly on the sofa, sipping tea and wondering about its faint almond taste, the beady-eyed presence of stuffed animals and the whereabouts of the landlady's previous guests.
As Mrs. Bixby in Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat, Joan Rosenfels replaces the unnerving cordiality of the landlady, for the lascivious Mae West gait of an aging coquette. Mutton-dressed-as-lamb in an ill-advised wig, Rosenfels' Mrs. Bixby is as dislikable as she is vain. On the pretence of visiting an elderly aunt, Mrs. Bixby periodically steals away from her nerdy dentist husband to visit the Colonel, her sweaty, redneck beau. When the colonel gives her a rare mink coat as a parting gift, delight gives way to determination with the unenviable task of explaining the coat's origin to the dentist. Devising an elaborate plan around a blank pawn ticket and her husband's bluff, Mrs. Bixby's adulterous ways are short-circuited by the equally adulterous dentist. Michael Gaston's manifold appearance as husband, lover and incidental cab driver is nifty directorial shorthand for conveying one of Dahl's central ironies, that Mrs. Bixby's efforts are all for naught.
In Galloping Foxley, Fields' adaptation limps to a standstill. Michael Gaston plays Perkins, a stiff commuter, whose peaceful journey to work is suddenly thrown into disarray by a stranger from the past. When a lofty gentleman appears one morning, provocatively swinging his cane, Perkins is convinced the man is Foxley, the prefect who made his life a misery at prep school many years before. Re-telling Foxley's Reign of Terror with the devout sobriety of a newsreader, Perkins' tale of harassment fails to make a dramatic impression on the audience. With its clumsy bed-time-story narration lifted directly from Dahl's tale, dramatic dialogue vanishes to straight narrative.
Presumably chosen for their complimentary nature, these stories should resonate spookily with one another, throwing us off guard with their nuances of coincidence and the thwarting of our expectations. Dahl's haphazard use of the name William Perkins in two of these stories seems to play up the uncanny. But the confluence goes by without a shudder, as does the bathos of Perkins' mistake at the end of Galloping Foxley. If Foxley's cane falls right on target, the final twist of this unimaginative adaptation misses the mark.
Watching Michael Gaston traipsing about the Blue Heron Arts Center stage in soft gray cuffs as an oversized cat with a connoisseur's appetite for music, one's expectations of the unexpected are purrrfectly fulfilled. In Edward the Conqueror, the finale of Tales (or should I say, Tails) of the Unexpected, Louisa, an enthusiastic amateur pianist, believes the mysterious feline intruder in her home to be the soul of the composer Franz Lizst, pent-up in the body of an unusually expressive cat. Hissing sarcastically at Louisa's interpretation of Schumann and Chopin, but preening luxuriously during her performance of Lizst, Gaston possesses the cat's body as much as the soul of the composer within. As Louisa succumbs to a freakish obsession, matching warts on the cat's face with those on Lizst's picture, so her spouse Edward, played by a surly David Toney, becomes increasingly hostile. In a final showdown between husband and wife, man prevails over woman and beast, but at severe cost to his dignity.
Dan Fields could learn something from Ally McBeal. If television gets away with mixing the everyday with the surreal, then theatre, with its dependence on the power of the imagination, has no excuse. The sinisterly vaudevillian aspect to Dahl's stories that lends itself so well to the stage ultimately eludes Fields' tentative adaptations. The expressive lighting and sound choices in the first play are largely excluded from the rest of the production. The reliance on narrative and the scrappy links between episodes, turns the unexpected wonder of Dahl's madcap world, into something both stumbling and predictable.
Early in 1955, Roald Dahl tried his hand at playwriting. Adapting some of his own short stories from the collection Someone Like You, the play, entitled The Honeys, revolved around two sisters who decide to murder their husbands. Opening at Broadway's Longacre Theater on April 28th, 1955, the play closed after only 36 performances, convincing Dahl to stick to short-story writing. Tantalizing to stage but dramatically elusive, Dahl's stories mocked their adapter then, as they do now.
TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED|
By Roald Dahl
Adapted and Directed by Dan Fields
With Jules Cazedessus, Michael Gaston, Derek Milman, Joan Rosenfels, David Toney
Set Design: Sky Lanigan
Costume Design: Loren Bevans (With Wigs by John Jack Curtain)
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Chester Jankowski
Composer: Michael Mulder
The Blue Heron Arts Center 123 East 24th Street (212/979-5000)
June 19 - July 12
Reviewed by Chloe Veltman based on June 22, 1999 performance