Witty performers can’t save Rip! A Winkle in Time’s sleepy story

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Conceived and written by KC Brown with the RIP! Creative Collective. Directed by Wayne Specht and Kathryn Bracht. An Axis Theatre Company production. At the Waterfront Theatre on Thursday, May 1. Continues until May 17

I suppose you could think of it as a bargain: the show is two hours long but it feels like at least four. Although it’s well-performed, Rip! A Winkle in Time moves at a glacial pace because it is appallingly badly conceived.

The script, which KC Brown created with the company, riffs on Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle”, but transports the title character—renamed Randall Irving Parson, or Rip, for short—from New England to the Yukon. To escape his nagging wife, Rip goes hunting in 1897, accepts some moonshine from characters who turn out to be ghosts from the Franklin expedition, and doesn’t wake up again until 2014. By that time, his great-great-grandson, Rip IV, is engaged in an environmental battle that turns on the deed to Rip’s original gold claim.

If A Winkle in Time leads you to believe you’re going to get a variation on Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, forget it; that part of the play’s title is just a goofy pun.

First clue that the evening is going to be a long one: it takes forever to get to the story. Before that happens, the Moon, played by Annette Devick, has to rise to her place in the sky; she does so by stacking chairs, then climbing up them and doing a sort of shoulder stand in a circus trick that’s merely okay. Then she mulls sluggishly through a series of tales before she finally decides to read Rip’s.

The whole notion of the Moon as the storyteller/writer is tedious. Why have her interrupt to say, “That would be a good twist”? Why not just get on with it? The device is also half-baked. At one point, the Moon considers how interesting it would be if the awakened Rip were to start aging rapidly. Characters talk about it—and then it doesn’t happen.
In its form, much of Rip! A Winkle in Time is the kind of thing that gives physical theatre a bad name. There’s a long sequence, for instance, in which Rip is captured by the Franklin ghosts and encased in ice. This involves so much slow-motion rolling and writhing that I felt like I was watching a beginners’ movement class.

The environmentalist plotline is naïve and tension-free: the pro-development character is so evil that we know how things have to turn out, and the argument over the land title quickly devolves into repetitive slapstick in which the characters chase one another around trying to grab the piece of paper.

None of this—well, very little of it—is the performers’ fault. Simon Webb, who plays Rip IV, also plays a character named Frenchie. Frenchie’s accent sounds more Welsh than Québécois, and Webb’s body isn’t as expressive as those of the other performers. But Tara Travis, who is an excellent clown, busily salvages badly written characters through witty delivery. Annette Devick (the Moon and others) is a dervish of energy, and Stefano Giulianetti, who plays Rip, provides hangdog charisma.

The production uses all sorts of techniques and styles—including shadow play, puppetry, and music hall—but the story is so slack that there’s really no point.

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