Walcott serves up a rewarding reversal of servant/master

Pantomime Play by Derek Walcott. Directed by Kay Matschullat. ``Pantomime,'' at the Hudson Guild Theatre, is a play of odd juxtapositions and unexpected turns. Recently retired ``panto'' performer Harry Trewe (Edmond Genest) operates a slightly seedy guest house on the West Indian island of Tobago. But according to playwright Derek Walcott, it's easier to take the performer out of show biz than to take show biz out of the performer.

To create an entertainment for the anticipated tourist trade, Trewe decides to do a liberated version of the British-style ``Robinson Crusoe'' pantomime in which he and his ex-wife appeared.

As a switch on Defoe's 18th-century plot, Trewe will play Friday and Jackson Phillip (Charles S. Dutton), the establishment's black waiter, will enact Crusoe. A former musician in a Trinidad steel band, Phillip at first resists having any part of Trewe's role-reversal pantomime. Persuaded to turn actor, Phillip's notion of how the shipwrecked Crusoe landed and found a safe haven runs immediately into Trewe's objections.

From that point on, ``Pantomime'' becomes a kind of latter-day parable about imperialism, colonialism, the evils of slavery, and the subjugation of blacks that continued long after official emancipation.

Such are the substantive matters of Mr. Walcott's provocative, amusing, and sometimes poignant comedy. At one point, Phillip delivers a long, ironic, metaphorical speech in which he likens the black man's pantomime to a white child's obedient shadow. Even when the child becomes frightened of the shadow, it is still there ``until it is the shadow that start dominating the child, it is the servant that start dominating the master ... and that is the victory of the shadow, boss....''

As it develops (and perhaps digresses), ``Pantomime'' delves slightly into Trewe's professional decline and an apparent family tragedy involving the entertainer's small son.

Yet however he may detour into personal backgrounds and past history, Mr. Walcott always returns to a one-on-one confrontation that ranges from comic interplay and raillery to a few tense moments of threatened violence. The play reaches a resolution inherent in its prevailingly humane attitude.

Walcott has been impressively served in the performance staged by Kay Matschullat. As Trewe, Genest keeps in touch with the sadness and emotional turmoil that underlie the outwardly upbeat mien of the professional entertainer. Dutton's Phillip is tolerantly accommodating and responsive until Trewe's insensitiveness, whether or not intended, arouses the black man's resentment. As a waiter, he observes that ``there are more manners in serving than in being served.''

Whether playful or serious, ``Pantomime'' commands and rewards the spectator's attention. The production, which runs through Sunday, has been effectively designed by Rosario Provenza (al fresco setting), Robert Wierzel (lighting), and Pamela Peterson (costumes). Edward Love staged the brief vaudeville bits, and the musical direction was by Deborah R. Lapidus.

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