Theater Review: “Annapurna” — A Trip Worth Taking

A two-person engagement like Annapurna demands that mysterious quality from actors that we call “chemistry.”

Annapurna by Sharr White. Directed by Keith Stevens. Presented by Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through July 17.

Photo; William Howell

Gus Kaikkonen (Ulysses) and Lisa Bostnar (Emma) in the Peterborough Players production of “Annapurna.” Photo: William Howell.

By Jim Kates

There used to be a marvelous vegetarian restaurant in Worcester, Massachusetts. It specialized every evening in an “ensemble dinner” composed around a single vegetable in seven different recipes, each with its own texture and flavor. Who could believe asparagus could come in such a variety of taste, or cauliflower? Customers traveled out from Boston just to dine at Annapurna.

Sharr White’s one-act Annapurna, the current offering from the Peterborough Players in southwestern New Hampshire, is just such an ensemble, confecting an exploration of painful love in at least seven different flavors — opening salty, moving through sour and tart to bittersweet and beyond.

Under the shadow of mortality, a man is suddenly confronted by the ex-wife who walked out on him twenty years ago. “I woke up, you were gone.” Clearly, they don’t want to talk to each other. For eighty minutes, they talk to each other, working from the painful present more and more painfully into the past and finally into the possibility of a painful future. It’s that “possibility,” as well as a lot of witty dialogue, that gives the play a dubious label as a comedy. Within the range of Annapurna, however, there are too many other flavors in narrative and emotion to define it so simply.

The weakest element in the play Annapurna may be its allegorical relationship to the title, which refers to the efforts of mountaineers in taking on the world’s most difficult peaks. Ulysses (an obviously ironic name) makes this explicit as he tells Emma (should we be thinking Bovary?) about one climber, “This one thing he’s done has ruined him,” but the alternative in life seems to be staying below base camp “scared and stuck.”

I have known Lisa Bostnar (Emma) and Gus Kaikkonen (Ulysses) now for some years not only as actors and also as personal friends. I write this not only in the interest of full disclosure — although they both know I would not hesitate if I thought their performances were not up to snuff — but to emphasize the way in which their achievement in this production is so remarkable. With both of them, and especially with Kaikkonen, I did not forget the private person I know as Gus shining through the theatrical role, no matter how convincingly played.

Yet, in Annapurna, Kaikkonen’s usually translucent acting disappears completely into Ulysses, a refugee from his own life hiding out in the Colorado mountains and now dying of emphysema. The characterization borders on cartoonish without ever crossing a dangerous line that would find the audience on the wrong side of empathy.

Bostnar leaves Lisa completely behind as she transforms herself into Emma, the ex-wife who has found him out, fleeing her own ambiguous East Coast life. If I have one disagreement with this performance or with the otherwise seamless direction of Keith Stevens, I found Emma a little too kindly, a little too likable at first. I think the script calls for a harder edginess. This is, after all, a woman who has walked out on her current husband (with good reason) taken the cash savings, stolen a hotel bathrobe along the way, and barges in to take control, not to provide hospice care.

A two-person engagement like Annapurna demands that mysterious quality from actors that we call “chemistry” because we have no other name for it, and Kaikkonen and Bostnar, who have worked on the same stage for years now, but who have never before simply played face-to-face, clearly express this kind of comfort together, partners as well as colleagues, even when their characters are most uncomfortable with each other.

Vaut le voyage, the old Michelin guide to top-notch restaurants used to mark those it took the most pleasure in: “Worth the trip.” Annapurna earns the accolade.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

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