Sitting beneath the dome designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany wasn't exactly the place I'd thought I'd be hearing the immortal words 'Don't Panic!' - but the sentiment was as welcome as always during the Curio Theatre Company's production of Douglas Adams'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Part I, here performed live, on stage.
It was a theatre experience to warm any hootooer's heart. The small matinee crowd more than made up for lack of numbers in the warmth of their enthusiasm, and the telepathic among us could practically hear the audience mentally saying the sacred dialogue along with the actors.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Part I (more parts are promised in the future) comprised the first three Fits of the original radio series. Three very talented performers, standing - much like the original cast, one imagines - behind lecterns, performed a variety of characters, only emerging from behind their podium to entertain the audience during the episode breaks with a brief dance.
Visuals were provided by means of a multimedia slide screen, offering a new take on the appearance of old favourites. Marvin the robot, for instance, with no head - and the Vogon Constructor Fleet looking rather a lot like flying electric torches. This reviewer, for one, was pleased to note an improved, more serious, appearance to Trillian. Much more respectful of an astrophysicist than, say, the old miniseries. The screen added much to the focus of the production - with a little imagination, the audience was right there again - on the Vogon ship, on the Heart of Gold, approaching the legendary planet of Magrathea.
Susan Jude, as The Book, provided an engaging narrative line to the story. Her Eddie, the Shipboard Computer, was endearingly upbeat, and her shouting Vogon convincingly alien. Drew Peterson's Arthur Dent evoked sympathy and hilarity by turns - especially when threatening to 'stamp on all the little pieces' of the construction crew's carcases. Jerry Rudasill gave amazing performances as Ford, Zaphod, the Vogon Captain, and Slartibartfast. The audience winced along with Ford and Arthur at the truly excruciating poetry performance. (We were almost ready to go out the airlock with them.)
The performers' remarkable ability to shift from character to character, often in midsentence, added enormously to the illusion of a large cast. The appeal of the original radio series - the freedom to visualise the story as you listened - was aided here by the variety of characterisations offered by the three actors.
The director, Jared Reed, explained after the show that he had first come to Adams' work through the books, but that Deva Laurel, Curio Theatre Company's stage manager, herself from the UK, had grown up with the radio series. When the company decided to try to recreate the immediacy of a radio series, Reed said, they had at first thought of the classic Golden Age radio series - but settled on The Hitchhiker's Guide, because, as he said, it was 'perfect'.
The Curio Theatre Company, which has toured nationally and internationally, has a residential partnership with the Calvary Center for Culture and Community in West Philadelphia. The activities there help to preserve a remarkable architectural treasure for the city of Philadelphia.
The play runs through March 4, 2006, at Calvary Center, and then moves across the river to Center City, Philadelphia, appearing at the Walnut Street Theatre through March 26th. For ticket information, see the Curio Theatre Company's website.
For plane tickets, see your travel agent, or try and figure out the Improbability Factor.