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Spies and Thrills Abound in 'Hapgood'

By Carla A. Blackmar, Crimson Staff Writer

In the post-Austin Powers era, where behind every evil force about to take over the world there stands a Mr. Bigglesworth and even, perhaps, a Mini-Me, taking the Soviet espionage genre seriously involves a willful suspension of disbelief on par with that required to enjoy a full-length Disney animated feature.

When we're too tired to pretend, spy flicks are enjoyed for their high camp-factor and for their contribution to the Nintendo-64 oeuvre. Tom Stoppard's Hapgood, Soviet Spy play though it is, will be relief for the disenchanted.

One of the tightest, sharpest productions at Harvard in years, the cast of Hapgood make you believe the way only the best theater can and even the best spy movie ca't. While spy movies lean on gadgets and effects, Hapgood reminds one that spying is really about acting--not to dismiss the outstanding technical design of this production.

Dispensing with the tiresome problems of Ex seating, Hapgood's stage takes over most of the space, neatly pinning the audience to the opposite wall for minimal interference the way more Ex productions should.

The set design of John D. Gordan '01 the lighting done by Ali Ruth Davis '00 conspire to create full and believable scenery that comes as a pleasant surprise in the minimalist space. Changing stalls, bathroom sinks, bookshelves and beds appear and disappear in a flurry of black-jacketed secret service agents.

By making the set-change into a well-choreographed running joke, the designers hammer down the last great Ex pitfall and keep the show flowing and the audience on edge.

Hapgood's action spins around three agents in the British secret service who are trying to determine how classified information from their top-secret particle physics lab is getting back to Moscow. Someone is a double agent and everyone would seem a suspect, though the loveability of the three central characters makes their criminality slightly implausible.

Their queen is Mrs. Hapgood (Emily Knapp), a paragon of British uprightness whose scone-like name belies a brilliantly reckless investigative style. Though she's a good six inches shorter than everyone else, Knapp fills out the personality of her great character and controls the stage. The audience hangs on her next action, and one hopes that no one from the BBC sees this performance lest Helen Miren should find herself out of a job.

Forming a slightly irregular love-triangle with Knapp is comfortably English agent Mr. Blair (George Byron) and the rambling, bumbling Soviet physicist-turned English spy, Dr. Kerner (James A. Carmicheal '00). It is a compliment to these actors that they are able to engage the audience in the drama's preoccupation with notions of Britishness.

Stoppard probably designed the play as a tool for English introspection, but excellent acting ensures that this is not lost on an American audience. While the whole cast does a good job at being British, the culture-bending trophy must go to Carmicheal's Kerner. The accent might be a little bit canned, but Carmicheal plays Stoppard's stereotypical Russian with ease; philosophical, profound and a fountain of abstract truth in a world of nicely clipped English chatter. For all this, though, he ends up being as inhibited as the notoriously uptight English; presenting the condition as something human rather than something cultural. When Carmicheal is joined with Byron's solidly played straight-man, and Knapp's desperately bright Mrs. Hapgood, they really hit on dramatic agony; the big gulf between feeling, and action.

Performances are excellent across the board, with Thomas H. Price '02 playing a convincingly slimy bad guy (note the lower class English accent...maybe this is Disney after all), and perfectly understated acting by the young Eoin Gaj in his role as Mrs. Hapgood's preppy son. Tremendous credit is also due to director Nicholas R. Parrillo '00, who seems to have a gift for quietly taking student theater to a truly professional level.

Hapgood opens with an American secret agent (Mosi Ayindi Secret '01) doing a very basic acting trick; facing the audience, he shaves as if he is looking into a mirror. The perfect pantomime of his toilet hoists the audience into a dramatic enchantment and reminds one of just how far we've sunk in this summer of real-world television. While we can see plenty of people plucking lettuce from their teeth from cameras hidden behind real mirrors, it's really so much better when it's fake. So what if the Cold War is over? See Hapgood and suspend disbelief. It's better that way.

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