Harry Trewe’s Castaway Guesthouse may not be the shabbiest establishment on the Caribbean isle of Tobago, but it’s certainly in the running. As envisioned for Derek Walcott’s gently acerbic comedy Pantomime by designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr., every inch of its weather-beaten colonial façade is in serious need of painting, and its deck and gazebo want only a strong wind to carry them over the cliff from which they have such a grand panoramic view.
Though we can’t actually see the hotel’s down-at-the-heels lobby at Round House Theatre, both Trewe (Michael Tolaydo) and his Calypsonian waiter-bellhop-handyman Jackson Phillip (Doug Brown) agree that its most colorful feature is a moulting parrot who talks either a blue streak or a German one, depending on which man is doing the interpreting. Trewe maintains that the parrot’s previous owner must have been named Heinegger and that the bird must miss him terribly considering how often he says his name; Phillip swears their feathered friend’s a racist and is taunting him with a greeting that hasn’t been acceptable since Trinidad’s colonial days.
Their differing takesone myopic, post-colonial, and forgiving, the other skeptical, post-apartheid, and indignantare the crux of Pantomime, an evening that’s appealingly long on laughter and even longer on good intentions. Walcott, a Nobel Prize-winning poet who wrote the libretto widely thought to have sunk Paul Simon’s Capeman on Broadway, appears to have been in a Fugardian mood when he wrote this late-’70s entertainment, anxious to illuminate the cultural gaps between his black and white protagonists and then to bring them to the sort of mutual understanding that doesn’t seem actively implausible in the real world.
Walcott has always been a better crafter of dialogue than of plots, so it’s no surprise that he’s blunter than his South African counterpart in setting things up. Still, the showbiz-savvy approach he has chosen has its virtues in terms of keeping things bright and amusing. He has given both his characters theatrical performing backgroundsTrewe in London’s music halls, Phillip in Trinidad’s calypso clubsso that they’ll share a vocabulary when they get to bickering over the nature of the entertainment the hotel must mount to fulfill a promise in its brochure. The white, liberal manager envisions a British “panto” that will spoof Robinson Crusoe, complete with what he considers an amusing, socially redeeming twist: He will play Friday, and his black employee will play Crusoe.
Phillip counters, entirely understandably, that this smacks of cultural condescension, and the two men are soon involved in a brisk debate over whether the Crusoe tale amounts to a “history of imperialism,” as Phillip says, or is just a politically incorrect relic of an earlier time. Trewe is annoyed that Phillip doesn’t seem to see the joke in the race-reversal casting he’s proposing. “If you take this seriously,” he complains, “we might commit art, which is a crime in this society.”
Walcott hasn’t himself committed art, but he has certainly gotten a lot of serious thoughts expressed in punch-line form. And Scot Reese’s sensitively straightforward staging finds additional laughs in the playing. The director is blessed with a spare physical productiontropical sunshine provided by Ayun Fedorcha, and sand (three tons’ worth), bleached planking, and a Cinerama-style cyclotron wide as all outdoors supplied by Musumecias well as a pair of enormously ingratiating performers.
Tolaydo plays Trewe as an appealing naif, taking some of the edge off the character’s leftover colonial impulses. He’s especially riotous in the opening sequence, trying and rejecting a series of delectably ghastly introductions to his little panto, but he’s also fine when the playwright trots out a melodramatic flourish late in the play to scare up a little empathy for him. And although Phillip’s tutorials on how the colonized see the experience of colonialism might easily make him seem a bit of a pill, Brown’s timing and Caribbean-inflected delivery allow him to sugarcoat the playwright’s sermonizing. Also his body language. When Trewe accuses him of “the most sarcastic hammering” he’s ever heard, you know just what he means.
The way the two men complement each other while fighting over music hall conventions is pure music hallsharply timed and seemingly effortless.
Which doesn’t change the fact that the evening is essentially a two-act debate on what the next step in race relations ought to be. It’s a bit disheartening to note that though Pantomime was first performed in 1978, there’s scarcely a line that requires changing two decades later. Racial debates still get framed in precisely the same terms; the misunderstandings on both sides haven’t changed an iota. So much for the transformative power of art.
But then, Walcott’s aim a generation ago wasn’t so much to raise hackles as to promote harmony based on mutual understanding. That, no doubt, is why the play goes down so easily today, and why it will still prove reassuring to audiences whose intentions are as good as the author’s.CP