Past Half Remembered
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
May 10, 2008
The New International Encounter (NIE), a multi-lingual company boasting members from England, France, Norway, and the Czech Republic, has quietly swooped into the New Victory Theatre with a humble and expansive new piece of theatre called Past Half Remembered. In children's theatre's answer to the "epic love story" genre, this versatile company portrays the romance and life of an ordinary woman throughout one of history's most tumultuous eras, with little more than a creative spirit and two trunks' worth of hand props.
Past Half Remembered reels us in quietly as the six actors (all of whom play instruments) introduce us to Maria, a 100-year-old Russian widow waiting to meet her husband again someday. Her life story, which covers the length of both World Wars, is recounted by the company through a whimsical narrative that employs a number of ambitious conventions—amazingly, most of them succeed enormously. Time bounces constantly between the past and the present; dialogue is spoken in a variety of languages; and a score of European folk tunes is played continuously, integrated into the action in both cinematic and naturalistic ways. If these techniques sound typical of ponderous downtowny fare, that's because they are...but here, they're delivered with a welcoming spirit and a wonderful clarity that keeps us with the story all the way. Even as the dialogue moves from Norwegian to French to Czech, the actors' well-timed English translations and visual storytelling keep us fully involved—these guys don't see language as a barrier, but rather as a means of exploring different perspectives of life.
Much of this show's success is certainly owed to the flexible cast, who created the show together through an extended workshop process. They deliver the action with a sense of humor that is surprisingly dry and understated, but is wisely offset by enough displays of physical comedy to keep younger children engaged. Special mention should go to the Czech Republic's Tomas Mechcek and Norway's Kjell Moberg, who walk the line between childlike wonder and lived-in humanity with a bare minimum of affectation. It's a balance that keeps things both honest and entertaining for everyone in the audience, and doesn't pander to even the youngest audience members. It's clear that the company has a profound respect for children of all ages, and faith that their universal themes of love and loneliness will register with anyone.
If this show's universality is its greatest strength, it may also create its greatest limitation in how marketable it is as a piece of children's theatre. There is a reference to making love, and it's helpful to have at least a basic knowledge of world history. It could be argued that it's a bit too grown-up for the little kids, and too playful for today's tweens, who become "way too cool for this kind of stuff" younger and younger these days.
Despite this potential marketing conundrum, however, it's this ambiguity that really gives Past Half Remembered its identity, and makes it a moving piece of theatre. Is it an adult story in the guise of children's theatre, or a piece of children's theatre with universal appeal for all ages? Really such questions are irrelevant, and doing this play a disservice. It's been created for anyone with a heart and an imagination.