Saturday, July 26, 2014

Three Men in a Book

... not to mention the boat, the dog, and an aggressively polite cat.

I fell a little behind in my recaps, what with work and life and all.

Step into the not-very-way-back machine to June 8: On the final day of the production, I got to see Synetic Theater's nifty little rendition of one of my favorite Wodehouse precursors, Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (subtitled To say nothing of the Dog!). As you can see from searching Amazon, there a few different editions of the 1889 classic; the one I have features a cover illustration by Alan Aldridge (who also seems to have designed the Hard Rock Cafe logo, among other achievements):

But I digress. Of course, the point of the story is digression. The narrator, "J," tells of the dire need he and his friends have to take a vacation from their hard working Victorian lives in the city. They take a boat trip on the Thames, a few days' adventure, the telling of which wouldn't normally last the 184 pages allowed in this Penguin edition with small type and narrow margins. So the narrator casts a line out and fishes in a number of tales from similar adventures in his and his friends' past experience.

It's a wonderful parlor story, told in a parlor; in the Synetic version (with a cast led by my favorite local farcemeister, Tom Story), the parlor furniture served amiably as boat and landscape, with a hint of the outdoors projected delicately onto a screen background. And when the story lay down for the night, the stage darkened under the glow of stars covering the entire audience.

My friend who is a Synetic subscriber and enthusiast was a little put off by all the dialogue of our three men and their dog. Synetic is known as the dance-and-movement company, and even Shakespeare's immortal text is lovingly elbowed aside for the alternative language of gesture. Why was Jerome's language so necessary when Shakespeare's could be abandoned?

It's probably because there wasn't much else to recommend the story itself. It's a series of amusing anecdotes without much in the way of higher passions and tragedies beyond the legends of the transporting of cheese, a prize fish caught by innumerable local fishermen, and of course the good dog Montmorency's encounter with a tom cat.

I was very happy that this latter anecdote was not excised from Synetic's production and that it was our Tom who enacted the part of the tom cat. Here is but a brief excerpt from the book:
I never saw a larger cat, nor a more disreputable-looking cat. It had lost half its tail, one of its ears, and a fairly appreciable proportion of its nose. It was a long, sinewy-looking animal. It had a calm, contended air about it.
Montmorency went for that poor cat at the rate of twenty miles an hour; but the cat did not hurry up--did not seem to have grasped the idea that its life was in danger. It trotted quietly on until its would-be assassin was within a yard of it, and then it turned round and sat down in the middle of the road, and looked at Montmorency with a gentle, inquiring expression that said:
"Yes! You want me?"
Montmorency does not lack pluck; but there was something about the look of that cat that might have chilled the heart of the boldest dog. He stopped abruptly, and looked back at Tom.
Neither spoke; but the conversation that one could imagine was clearly as follows:
The Cat: "Can I do anything for you?"
Montmorency: "No--no, thanks."
The Cat: "Don't you mind speaking, if you really want anything, you know."
Montmorency (backing down the High Street): "Oh, no--not at all--certainly--don't trouble. I--I am afraid I've made a mistake. I thought I knew you. Sorry I disturbed you."
The Cat: "Not at all--quite a pleasure. Sure you don't want anything, now?"
Montmorency (still backing): "Not at all, thanks--not at all--very kind of you. Good morning."
The Cat: "Good morning."
Then the cat rose, and continued his trot; and Montmorency, fitting what he calls his tail carefully into its groove, came back to us, and took up an unimportant position in the rear.
To this day, if you say the word "Cats!" to Montmorency, he will visibly shrink and look up piteously at you, as if to say:
"Please, don't."

Tom Story as Jerome (and the Cat); Alex Mills as Montmorency. Photo by Koko Lanham,
Sweet gallery of photos from this production by Koko Lanham at

No comments: