Silence is one of the few theatrical postures that are not even considered in "Pantomime" by Derek Walcott, now being given its first American production at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater. Words -- playful, strong, effervescent, musical, relentless, teasing -- keep washington over the subject like the surf that can be heard in the background.
The subject, as proposed by one of the play's two characters for a pantomime-within-the-play satirizing Robinson Crusoe, is "the master-servant relationship, labor-management, white-black." A former English music-hall actor who owns a seedy guest house in Tobago tries to goad his servant, a former calypso musician, into cooperating in providing entertainment for the coming tourist season. But the servant, with his air of polite deference, is already in an acting job, and the gimmick of role reversal does not titillate him.
So instead of its becoming another version of "The Admirable Crighton," (Barrie's play having long ago taken care of turning "Robinson Crusoe" upside down by having shipwreced aristocrats bested by their butler) their playinbg begins to take on a historical meaning. "The Englishmen keeps trying to put down the White Man's Burden, and the Trinidadian keeps trying to unwrap it and hold the contents up for inspection and ridicule.
"If you take this thing seriously, we could commit art," the Englishman warns, and they come dangerously close to doing so.
The extraordinary and versatile acting of Avery Brooks as the servant and Richard Bauer as the hotel-keeper do wonders to make these undecisive ruminations of two bored men in an isolated resort continually entertaining. Brooks does smooth servility with such deceptive sincerity that the transformation into Crusoe is as maniacal as it is poetic, and he also throws in English butler, American cowboy and puppet falsetto. Bauer does the Englishman as something that got left drinking Scotch in a rattan chair in an old Somerset Maugham story.
But it's also an extraordinary play. There is a speech about the former colonials as the shadows of the Empire's sun, which imperialists, like children, come to fear and try to shake, the one would like to have repeated, slowly, for study.
Earlier this week, the playwright won one of the unsolicited grants from the the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, designed to support its recipients for five years to do whatever they want, with no stipulations at all. It's good to know that at least one winner could safely retire to a tropical paradise with the intention of doing nothing and still keep the words coming.
PANTOMIME -- At the Kreeger through June 7.