Three Characters in Search of a Publicist

IMPROBABLE THEATRE PRODUCER Nick Sweeting is being cagey. Talking about his company's current touring production, Spirit, over the phone from his home in London, he's speaking in generalities and refusing to be pressed toward specifics. "I would say the show is about three brothers," he says. Three brothers, yes, but what else? "But also about the three performers onstage." And then silence.

Aside from the fact that I can mentally hear my telephone bill soaring in these long pauses, Sweeting's non-answers are perplexing because it is precisely the details that make the Improbable Theatre Company so fascinating. They were responsible for the distinctly ghoulish, Edwardianism-gone-mad look of last year's Shockheaded Peter, and also for the play's off-kilter structure, which embraced the malice in Heinrich Hoffmann's deranged children's book. A few years earlier, the Improbable Theatre Company stopped by the Walker with its touring production 70 Hill Lane, an Obie-winning show that told of cast member Phelim McDermott's experiences with a poltergeist at age 15, acted out on a stage made of old newspapers and cellophane tape and incorporating haunting puppets made out of garbage.

Spirit is another brainchild of McDermott's, inspired by a rather heady philosophical system called Process Work. The show originated in workshops led by social activists and theater director Arlene Audergone, who has led similar workshops in such war-torn regions of the world as Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Sweeting refuses even to attempt a description of Process Work, saying, "I sort of understand what it means when people are doing it, but I'm afraid if I try to explain it I will muck it all up." Fortunately, the Web page for Drs. Max Schupbach and Jytte Vikkelsoe, with whom Audergone is associated, gives a description: "With its theoretical roots in Jungian Psychology, modern physics, Taoism, and communication theory, it bridges the gap between psychotherapy, art, spiritual discipline and social activism," they write. "What initially presents itself as a difficulty, illness or conflict, turns out to be the seed of a new process that brings personal growth, expanded awareness and an enhanced appreciation of life's mysteries."

"Our play tries to deal with what happens onstage when performers are in conflict," Sweeting says. Yes, but how? "We have several moments in the play that are improvisationally based, when conflict develops and the cast must resolve it." Can you be more specific? "Well, there is one moment toward the end of the play--but I'd better not give it away."

Perhaps this is for the best, as one of the most charming features about the Improbable Theatre Company is its capacity for the unexpected. The company develops its productions using a complex, free-flowing improvisational method, and the finished work often retains a sense that a play is being invented as we watch it. In fact, a recent touring production, called Lifegame, was completely created on the spot, manufactured by acting out scenes inspired by an interview with a preselected audience member. "I would say that the only thing that is the same between Spirit and previous productions is that it is made out of materials that aren't usually seen in the theater," Sweeting says. There are more of Improbable's signature grotesque puppets, for example, which in this instance have interchangeable heads and act out supporting roles.

"It's appropriate that this production is named Spirit," Sweeting declares. "It is similar to the mad spirit that created Shockheaded Peter. It's theater that dares to be a bit different. Expect the spirit that is Improbable."

So we have that tantalizing promise/fundraising tag and nothing else, save the equally tantalizing description that accompanies the press release for the show: "Three performers play three brothers. Three brothers who break bread together and wait for their story to begin. The performers wait too. And when did a story not happen to three brothers?"

When indeed?