American Players Theatre
Susan Shunk and James Ridge in American Players Theatre's The Admirable Crichton
James Ridge is certainly showing his range this summer. The veteran American Players Theatre actor plays the title roles in both The Admirable Crichton and Richard III this season. It must be a welcome change of pace to balance the drama of Shakespeare's famous tyrant with the comedy of Crichton, a 1902 play by J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
Not that Crichton himself is a jokester. He's a butler who believes unswervingly in England's class system and, by extension, his own subordination. Crichton doesn't so much make jokes as indulge the hackneyed ones of his superiors.
At least he does at the beginning of this play, which opened Saturday night in APT's "Up the Hill" outdoor amphitheater. What Crichton serves up is part fantasy and part drawing-room comedy. It's also an upstairs-downstairs look at social class.
The rigid class system Crichton and his employers espouse is upended when a shipwreck strands them on a deserted island. Unsurprisingly, Crichton is the only man with survival skills. Thus begins his transformation from a dutiful butler to a revered leader dubbed "the guv" by the same people who once ordered him around.
Under the guidance of frequent APT director Kenneth Albers, Crichton becomes a delectable summer treat. While APT hires actors who can tackle serious, classical theater and make sense of dense text, they've also scored some skilled comic performers. It's enjoyable to see the humorous side of the actors' craft.
We first meet Ernest Wooley (a goofy, pitch-perfect Steve Haggard), a self-absorbed nitwit enamored with his own cleverness. He's the nephew of Crichton's employer, Lord Loam (an avuncular Mark Goetzinger), whose radical views have spawned a monthly tea that brings together folks from upstairs and downstairs. Crichton finds this event deeply embarrassing, since, in his view, it disturbs the natural order of things.
But tea among unequals is a trifling worry compared to what comes next. The shipwreck changes not only Crichton's status that of but Lord Loam and his three daughters. In particular, the wreck transforms the dynamic between Crichton and haughty Lady Mary, the eldest. As she remarks with surprise on the island, "You are a man." Suddenly his ability to actually do things is a hot commodity -- and sexy, too.
While wonderfully witty, Barrie's script is not all silliness. Themes of class, hierarchy and natural order are skillfully woven into the script, but I was carried along by my sheer enjoyment of the characters.
A Rousseau-inspired island set by scenic designer Michael Ganio is lots of fun, as is artistic director David Frank, who voices some of the background information in Barrie's script. (Near the beginning, he says of Ernest: "If he has his way, he will spend his life like a cat in pushing his betters out of the soft places, and until he is old, he will be fondled in the process.")
Many Americans are endlessly fascinated by the English class system, at least how it once was. (How many of us sat transfixed by our TVs, wondering if Downton Abbey's Lady Sybil would wind up with the feisty-but-hot chauffeur?) For lovers of Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park -- or just plain smart writing -- Crichton is admirable indeed.