Theater Review: “Apt. 4D” — Beau Jest’s Sly, Comic Ode to Film Noir

Beau Jest’s playful Apt. 4D offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the creativity and imagination of the truly extraordinary theater troupe.

A scene from Apt 4D

Lisa Tucker, Kathleen Lewis, and Robin JaVonne Smith in a scene from Beau Jest’s “Apt. 4D.”

Apt. 4D, written and performed by Beau Jest Theatre at the Charlestown Working Theater, Charlestown, MA, through June 21.

By Terry Byrne

Starting with just a bare stage, Beau Jest Moving Theatre once again casts a spell rich in atmosphere, characters, details and emotion. Apt. 4D celebrates the company’s 30th anniversary with a sly, comic ode to film noir and urban isolation.

Beau Jest has earned a reputation for startlingly imaginative theatrical adventures that take us into the world of the comic strip Krazy Kat, Tennessee Williams’s Ten Blocks on the Camino Real and Samurai 7.0, inspired by the Akira Kurosawa film, to name just a few. With simple, elegant movement and deft storytelling, Beau Jest always manages to deliver powerful productions that bring us right into their fantastical worlds.

Apt. 4D is one of the company’s best efforts. The production opens with a light-hearted dance to “It’s a Lovely Day,” but as the four performers scamper and spin about, their perky smiles become strained and the bodies start to crash into each other. This is our introduction to a collection of urban dwellers whose lives should intersect gracefully but instead bounce awkwardly against each other, especially when a mysterious new neighbor moves into Apt. 4D.

Director Davis Robinson and the Beau Jest ensemble, which includes Robinson, Lisa Tucker, Kathleen Lewis and Robin JaVonne Smith, play an assortment of residents in the Franklin Arms apartment, ranging from a newcomer from the Midwest to a avant-garde filmmaker. These sometimes quirky but oh-so-familiar folks connect on a surface level in the laundry room, outside in the courtyard or in the hall, but all are fascinated by the Woman in 4D (Lewis), who also serves as our sometime narrator.

What makes Apt. 4D so enchanting is the quartet’s ability to introduce us to nearly a dozen characters and take us into every corner of the apartment building, even up on the roof and over rooftops in a hilarious chase scene, with only the gestures and sound effects of the performers creating the sets in vivid detail. We hear doorknobs turn and the doors squeak open as the nosy neighbors peer out into the hall and then quickly slam their doors shut. We hear the sound of things being dragged, treadmills turning, washing machines being turned on, front door buzzers buzzing, the hum of an old elevator running, and even someone talking to one of the residents in a voice that sounds uncannily like the adults in the animated Charlie Brown TV specials.

At just the right moments, the company members break into a cappella versions of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Up on the Roof” and Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” with aching harmonies punctuated by simple dance routines.

In addition to the audio and visual cues, we get delightful details about the residents: the filmmaker’s day job playing piano in a train station; one neighbor who asks another to care for cats while she’s away; a garden committee that objects to the new neighbor digging up an area; a resident obsessed with working out; another who is desperately trying to make friends in a new city.

The only prop used is a bench that appears in the apartment courtyard, which then turns to reveal the exterior of the building, including a fire escape and the direction of the elevator. As with every element of this production, the prop is suggestive enough to encourage our imaginations to fill in the details.

The script, written collaboratively by the company, stretches the boundaries of the film noir mystery form, but instead of becoming bogged down in the genre, the plot takes a delightful turn that is satisfyingly simple and complete.

Beau Jest’s playful Apt. 4D offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the creativity and imagination of the truly extraordinary theater troupe.

Read an Arts Fuse interview with Davis Robinson about Apt. 4D.

Terry Byrne has been writing about the arts for nearly two decades. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

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