Theater Previews at Duke's absolutely gorgeous world-premiere production of The Great Game by D. Tucker Smith, playing Feb. 20-24 and March 1-4 in Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University's West Campus, mixes romance with espionage, but not always successfully. The show's single wooden set with lattice work, ingeniously conceived and strikingly decorated by scenic designer and 2006 Tony Award® nominee Derek McLane, doubles as the drawing room of a stately mansion in London and various less opulent locales in London and in Colonial India. Scenes set thousands of miles apart sometimes overlap, with the London events mostly unfolding audience right, and the Indian events mostly taking place audience left.
Set in 1870 in London and Northwest India, The Great Game takes its title from the feverish competition between Great Britain and Russia to explore, occupy, and claim the choicest portions of Central Asia for their burgeoning empires. The British Lion was particularly possessive of India, often called the Jewel in the Crown, and deeply suspicious of the Russian Bear's southward move into surrounding territories. In the decades since, “the great game” has become a generic term for ESPIONAGE whenever, wherever, and whoever the “players” might be.
At the core of The Great Game are three footnote people from British history: Royal Geographic Society explorer George Hayward (Marcus Dean Fuller); British businessman and Hayward's Brother of the Raj Robert Shaw (Christopher Burns); and RGS president and East India Company crown director Sir Henry Rawlinson (Michael O'Hagan), who was one of the leading players in England’s attempt to thwart Russia's expansionist ambitions in Asia.
Playwright Tucker Smith mixes this trio of real-life characters with members of the Hayward family and fictional characters—sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which—in a suspenseful storyline in which a forbidden romance blossoms between George Hayward and a female Indian pundit (spy) named Safia (Anjali Bhimani), who disguises herself as a poor man—usually an itinerant trader or lama (Buddhist monk)—and wears an intriguing eye-patch.
When Safia unexpectedly shows up in London, claiming to be Mrs. George Hayward on a frantic secret mission to save her new husband from a suicidal assignment to travel through extremely hostile territories to map the lofty but largely unexplored Pamir Mountains, she is anything but warmly received by the explorer's suspicious if not downright hostile relations, friends, and servants. They include George Hayward's paternal grandmother Charlotte (Lois Markle), his resentful (and, perhaps, just a little jealous) brother Edward (David Bishins), his nephew Martin (Bobby Steggert), his former fiancée Pru Sidwell (Yvonne Woods), and an assortment of other Hayward family retainers and harlots all played with brio by sultry Heather Collins.
The Great Game proceeds down two separate but interrelated dramatic tracks, with current events and flashbacks sometimes overlapping in confusing ways. Meanwhile, the crucial moments when George and Safia make the transition from reluctant colleagues in exploration—dodging hostile bullets and sword thrusts—to lovers and then to husband and wife are never satisfactorily shown. George and Safia meet warily and, all too soon, they are mad about each other and married; and George subsequently appears mainly in Safia's dreams.
Marcus Dean Fuller and especially Anjali Bhimani bring George and Safia Hayward vividly to life, and Christopher Burns does his best with the swashbuckling but underwritten role of Robert Shaw. David Bishins is thoroughly hissable as Edward Hayward, the treacherous villain of the piece who is a capital-R racist to boot; and Bobby Steggert as the artistic and sympathetic to Safia Martin Hayward provides the perfect foil for his domineering father.
Yvonne Woods does a nice job of making the increasingly painful dilemma of Hayward family friend—and now Edward’s fiancée—Pru Sidwell palpable. There is much that she admires about Edward’s business acumen; but the dark side of Edward revealed during Safia Hayward’s visit is deeply troubling. On opening night last Friday, Lois Markle struggled with some of her lines as the icy Hayward family matriarch; but Michael O’Hagan did a much better job of capturing ambiguities in the attitudes and actions of Sir Henry Rawlinson.
2006 Tony-nominated director Wilson Milam set a brisk pace and orchestrated the bifurcated action with a firm hand. But fine-tuning of the script is needed to clarify some sequences.
Scenic designer Derek McLane’s splendid set and the colorful creations of costume designer Greg Gale, wig and hair designer Josh Marquette, and properties mistress Laurie Johnson all enhanced the authenticity of the production. The efforts of lighting designer Ben Stanton and sound designer Peter Fitzgerald also deserve kudos, but the martial ballets staged by fight choreographer J. David Brimmer are a bit awkward and suffer from lack of context. As Butch and Sundance once asked, Just who are those guys trying to shish-kabob the heroes?
The current Theater Previews at Duke production of The Great Game, presented in association with Randall L. Wreghitt, Jana Robbins, Joel & Phyllis Ehrlich, and Brian & Jackie Steele, has many admirable qualities. Yet it seems somehow incomplete, because the love at its heart between George and Safia is never satisfactorily explained during the play’s two hours and 15 minutes (including intermission). For a drama about explorers, The Great Game frequently leaves the audience lost, because they are too many faraway places with strange-sounding names to track—without a better map.
Note: For a Letter to the Editor concerning this review, click here.
Theater Previews at Duke, in association with Randall L. Wreghitt, Jana Robbins, Joel & Phyllis Ehrlich, and Brian & Jackie Steele, presents The Great Game Tuesday-Friday, Feb. 20-23, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 24, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 25, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, March 2, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 3, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 4, at 2 p.m. in Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $18-$30, with $5 discount for students and groups of 10 or more. 919/684-4444 or http://tickets.duke.edu/. Theater Previews at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/theater/. The Great Game: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/GG.html.