Grave Undertaking

When the story calls for some dark dramatics, why not take advantage?

"Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire," George Bernard Shaw once famously said. There is no dance more expressive of sex than the tango. Yet while the dramatic physicality and seething passions of the Argentine art form course with passion, tango is equally an expression of heartbreak and loss. As the famous tango musician and composer Enrique Santos Discépolo put it, "El tango es un pensamiento triste que hasta se puede bailar." (The tango is a sad thought that you can dance.)

Local playwright Ian Walker's drama The Gravedigger's Tango (which won the Larry Corse Prize in 2006) explores the gray area separating life from death through the prism of dance, though the language of tango is more implied than explicitly stated in the play. It's there in the setting — a twilight cemetery where gravediggers cavort with grinning skulls like the clowns in Act 5, Scene I of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It's also visible in the melodramatic story-within-a-storyline, which owes a debt to the stormy gothic tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the high-stakes plotting of Alfred Hitchcock's movies — notably, his 1951 murder mystery Strangers on a Train.

Walker's intriguing, though uneven, drama weaves together two narratives. The first concerns a hard-up twentysomething by the name of Pip, forced to take a job as a junior gravedigger at the local cemetery to make ends meet. When Pip discovers a mysterious headstone with no dates on it, the rookie's bilious boss, Laszlo, begins to recount the story behind the grave. Laszlo's tombstone yarn transports us to the north of England some years previously. A chance encounter on a train between a youthful American doctor, Alexander Charon, and an avuncular British physician named Geoffrey Pockworth leads to dramatic consequences. Charon soon finds himself caught up inside the sordid affairs of the aristocratic Ashecombe clan. As the sick family patriarch breathes his final breaths and his children — the lovely Isabella and debauched Thomas — face off over the old man's will, Charon struggles to maintain a grip on his medical code of ethics and deal with an aching heart.

The characters walk and talk in an understated style.
Alexis Levesque
The characters walk and talk in an understated style.

Details

Written and directed by Ian Walker. Starring Natalie Palan, Ryan Tasker, Doug Thornburg, and Kathryn Tkel. Through July 28 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St. (between 17th St. and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 508-5614 or visit www.secondwind.8m.com

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Like the tango, this ought to be fiery, passionate stuff. In some ways, Walker manages to infuse the spirit of the tango into his study about what it means to live and die. Characters in both plots live in extreme circumstances. Pip and Laszlo work all night at a dead-end job; Charon (whose very name brings the mythical river separating life and death to mind) is forced to confront the idea of euthanasia; Thomas battles his drinking habit and instinct for violence. As in Hamlet, the ghost of which haunts Walker's play throughout, from the Yorick references to Isabella's Ophelia-like preoccupation with the symbolic meanings of various flowers, Walker's play dances the margin between life and death. In so doing, the action mimics the emotional extremes of tango.

Yet despite the fact that the drama literally takes place at the grave's edge, the production frequently shies away from striking out into the void. Rather than pushing the characters as far as they can go and reveling in the Sturm und Drang emotion of the story, the cast and dramatist (who also directs his play for Second Wind theater company) take a largely muted, naturalistic approach to the acting and mise-en-scène. This is, in my view, a mistake. The opening scene, in which Pip runs into Laszlo for the first time while stumbling about in the dark at the cemetery, ought to hit us like lightning bolts behind Count Dracula's castle in the Hammer Horror films. Instead, the actors mumble their lines and stand around nonchalantly as if they're auditioning for roles in cult movies about small-town America, like Paris, Texas or Fargo.

Because the acting seems almost apologetic about the melodramatic nature of the play, some of the more deliciously outlandish moments — which range from cross-dressing to a tango dance sequence — stand out garishly from the generally understated style. The pronounced limp that accompanies the Ashecombes' sinister maid, Penny Farthing, seems particularly out of place. There's something comical about Madeleine Hansen's diligence in maintaining that disability so doggedly throughout the play. Determined to stick it out to the last, Hansen even limps her way through the scene changes. A long section in the Ashecombes' well-appointed home is similarly thrown off-kilter by the presence of the dying Mr. Ashecombe, who spends the entire episode lying face-up on a gurney gasping intermittently lest we should forget about the character's death throes. And then there's the distracting business of Laszlo's pet Lab, which, at least for me, brought to mind Elizabethan impresario Philip Henslowe's recipe for theatrical success from the movie Shakespeare in Love. "You see — comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That's what they want."

Forget Lassie. What I personally want from The Gravedigger's Tango is more, well, tango. It's almost as if Walker is afraid of the dramatic potential of his material. His writing is a statement in Victorian-era theatrics with its tombstone poetry, rolling English fog, and flowing whiskey and poison. One or two of the actors understand this and, without over-acting, refuse to hold back. Brian O'Connor's turn as Pockworth, the boozy medic with dubious ethics, is a case in point. Yet many of the play's funniest and most poignant lines are lost to the prevailing muted delivery and puttering rhythm. Far from devastating us with "a vertical expression of a horizontal desire," the production waltzes along like it's picking flowers in the woods rather than strewing them on a fresh grave.

 
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