King of Hearts

Tongue and Groove's stage adaptation of the anti-war cult film looks lovely but breezes by too quickly

Mark Stewart (seated) is crowned King of Hearts

Paper hearts rain down on the cobblestones of the quaint French village, a celebratory shower of red marking the coronation of a Scottish soldier by the inmates of the local asylum. The fanciful gesture, enriched by the sapphire light that bathes the extravagantly outfitted inmates – one all in white, another in rich scarlet, a third in black and violet, and a ballerina in buttery yellow – is pure Tongue and Groove Theatre: charming in its simple theatricality. It gets right to (pardon the pun) the heart of this anti-war fable in which the lunatics seem sensible and the supposedly sane soldiers are the ones who are truly mad.

Tongue and Groove Artistic Director David Yeakle has always had a way with fables, and Philippe de Broca's 1966 film, which attained cult-film status on the revival-house circuit in the Seventies, is one that's right up his ruelle. Its messages of peace and nonconformity, its eccentric outsiders immersed in a world of play, its situations ripe for physical comedy, and its sweet parfum de whimsy echo other T&G productions in which Yeakle conjured theatrical wonders. Indeed, he takes the same approach to staging King of Hearts that he did to another midcentury French film, The Red Balloon: distilling the narrative into movement and letting mime tell the tale. But where that award-winning adaptation floated onto the stage fully inflated, if you will, this premiere of King of Hearts feels like an early sketch for a work to be more fully developed down the line.

That has nothing to do with the show's look. Ia Ensterä's Gallic village appears to have been pulled from a storybook, the stones and signs for its shops and cafes elegantly marked out in white outlines on flat, dark surfaces. And Natalie George's lighting embraces them with rich colors, as it does the vivid costumes with which Talena Martinez bedecks the lunatics. And it isn't that the story is harder to convey without dialogue; Yeakle is skilled at translating word into action, and one is rarely at a loss here to grasp what is happening or being felt at any moment (though the execution of that movement isn't as consistently crisp as it could be and has been in past productions). What Yeakle doesn't always give us – or give us enough of, at least – is time with the characters: time to observe them, by themselves and in interactions with one another, and time to see their personas and relationships flower. Part of what won audiences over to the lunatics' side in de Broca's film was how he let us come to know them as more than just the oddities of their behavior in their chosen roles; we sensed the humanity in them, the heart. Yeakle moves the story along briskly, which is to his credit, but at the expense of our sense of who these inmates are under their brightly colored clothes and why the Scotsman Plumpick, whom they crown the Roi de Coeur, comes to care for them so. Mark Stewart is as reliably winning here as he's been in any T&G show, but he just hasn't the time to give dimension to his Plumpick or develop much of a connection to the soldier's mad new friends. With the current version clocking in at under an hour, Tongue and Groove's King of Hearts should be able to spare a few more minutes for us to dwell in the company of these lovable lunatics, to savor their quirks and discover the hearts that beat inside them.

King of Hearts

Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through June 6
Running time: 45 min.

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Tongue and Groove Theatre, David Yeakle, Mark Stewart, Ia Ensterä, Natalie George, Talena Martinez

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