Lee Simpson, Phelim McDermott, and Guy Dartnell in Spirit
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lee Simpson, Phelim McDermott, and Guy Dartnell in Spirit
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
A triumph in storytelling, Spirit simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the creative process. The London-based ensemble Improbable -- which includes some of the co-creators of the critically acclaimed Shockheaded Peter -- has fashioned an enthralling theater piece that is flawlessly executed.

Co-directed by Julian Crouch and Arlene Audergon, it features the talents of Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott, and Lee Simpson. All three have a keen sense of comic timing and the ability to make the audience hang upon their every word and gesture. At the beginning of the piece, there's a long moment without dialogue that is riveting precisely because the performers are intently listening and reacting to what is around them. This forces the audience to listen as well.

Spirit tells two overlapping stories. The more traditional one concerns three brothers who run a bakery. Ted (Dartnell), the eldest, is expecting a letter containing orders for him to go and fight in the war that's raging in their country. As he and middle brother Tom (Simpson) get ready to open the bakery one morning, the youngest brother, Bob (McDermott), intercepts the letter. He hangs on to it all day and then, armed with fantasies of flying airplanes and heroism, he decides to go to war in his brother's place.

This story, however, often takes a back seat to the tale of the three actors who are performing together onstage. Their metatheatrical discussions on acting technique are amusing and, at times, profound. Seamlessly integrated moments of improvisation help to flesh out these sequences; I can't imagine what the production is like on those nights when a fly does not land near Simpson's head, as its presence when I attended wound up having significant thematic impact and inspired some of the show's funniest lines.

There's a genuinely playful feeling among the performers, particularly when they manipulate bizarre puppet figures with interchangeable heads or, sometimes, no heads at all. A sense of wonder is also found in the scenes involving toy airplanes. But it's not all fun and games: Meditations on death and the human cost of war also work their way into the piece. In one of its darkest moments, Dartnell manipulates the limp body of McDermott in puppet-like fashion as he accuses Simpson of narrating Bob's fiery downfall. The effect is extremely creepy.

The action is performed on a large wooden ramp that serves as a steeply raked stage; portions of it are removable, allowing the actors to enter through various openings. The set is also rigged to transform into different locales such as the bakery, complete with chimney. (Design realization is credited to Julian Crouch, Graeme Gilmour, Rob Thirtle, and Helen Maguire.) Colin Grenfell's lighting is integral to setting the mood of each segment of the show, as is Andrew Paine's excellent sound design.

Spirit is a magical theatrical experience that shouldn't be missed. It has a limited four-week engagement at New York Theatre Workshop, through October 9. Catch it before it's gone.