For the first time in 50 years, U.S. and Cuban diplomats are negotiating the details of a more open relationship, but Portland Stage Company theatergoers can easily travel to Havana right now, with just a trip to the top of Forest Avenue.
“Our Man in Havana” is a farcical adaption of Graham Greene’s “entertainment novel” by British playwright Clive Francis that takes much of the “black” out of Greene’s comedy. Greene himself had worked for Britain’s MI6 spy service and learned of an MI6 agent who fabricated a series of reports, duping the MI6 bureaucracy and collecting his salary at leisure, at least for a while. The story is set in late 1950s Havana as the Cold War was intensifying, just before Castro came to power. In the right hands, the story could allow for wacky hijinks to ensue.
In this production, director Paul Mullins rises to the occasion. The show depends mightily on pace, which the actors deliver with superb timing and rhythm, and which can bring to mind the best of Loony Tunes or even the fast-paced repartee of the movie “His Girl Friday.” This is screwball comedy just shy of out-and-out slapstick, shaded by dark happenings that approach grimness.
A menagerie of characters is played by four actors. Bruce Turk as Jim Wormold is the sole actor playing only one part, a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman and British expat making the best of things in sultry, sunny Havana. He begins as an anchor in the action, as hilarity swirls around him, until he’s forced to truly take matters into his own hands. Turk’s physicality is like a dancer’s or a mime’s, with great expression in his movements, including in his sometimes surprised, sometimes crestfallen, but always reacting face.
Vin Knight, Katie MacNichol and Jason O’Connell inhabit characters with widely varying personalities, accents and professions. Seeing one show up as an office boy then a policeman then the Queen of England only adds to the hilarity. The costume and character changes were often so presto chango that, at times, the audience would burst into applause with appreciation.
Artistic director and set designer Anita Stewart’s work uses minimalist props against dramatic backdrops and moving screens, with exacting attention to detail. Bryon Winn’s lighting design transforms the stage from sunniest day to scariest night, and his shadows are yet more members of the cast.
For a play that deals with war, torture and tension among nations, “Our Man in Havana” hits the right notes, allowing us to emerge from the Cold War – at least this absurd version of it – laughing.
“Our Man in Havana,” directed by Paul Mullins
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
REVIEWED: Jan. 22; runs through Feb. 15