French comedy Heroes' up next at Sarasota's Banyan

mclear@bradenton.comJuly 18, 2013 

It's been called a cross between "Waiting for Godot" and "Grumpy Old Men."

"Heroes," the next production from Banyan Theater, is populated by three World War I veterans with various physical and mental infirmities, residing in a retirement home in the late 1950s. Their main mode of interaction and entertainment seems to be plotting escapes. They plan with military precision, but their escapes never seem to work out.

Part of the reason is one character insists on bringing along a 400-pound concrete statue of a dog from the retirement home.

"It's beautifully comedic without being slapstick," said Joseph Parra, who's making his Banyan debut as Henri, one of the three veterans. "At the same time it's quite poignant and even heartbreaking."

The Banyan production opens today and runs for three weeks.

The play has origins in a decade-old French comedy by Gerald Sibeylras called "Le vent des peupliers." Renowned British playwright Tom Stoppard translated it in 2005. The original title translates into "The Wind from the Poplars," but Stoppard changed it because of the similarity to "The Wind in the Willows."

Stoppard's adaptation had a well-received run in London in 2005 and 2006, with a production starring Richard Griffiths (from the "Harry Potter" movies), Ken Stott (from "The Hobbit") and John Hurt (from "Alien").

In England, it won the Olivier Award, one of the most prestigious theater honors, for best new comedy.

Reviews of American productions have been mixed. Critics agree the play is extremely funny, but some lament the shallowness of characterizations and the lack of intellectual subtext theatergoers have come to expect from Stoppard plays.

Parra agrees playwright Sibeylras and translator Stoppard don't provide a lot of insight into characters beyond what's on the surface.

"Philippe has a piece of shrapnel in his head, and he faints often, like sometime every five minutes," Parra said. "Joseph, my character, is extremely shy. Joseph has a bum leg."

It's not even clear whether the three veterans -- Peter Thomasson plays Gustav and Alan Kitty plays Philippe -- knew each other before the retirement home. But still, Parra said, the play is "extremely character-driven."

Parra and Kitty are new to Banyan. Parra is best-known for his many roles at American Stage in St. Petersburg.

Kitty is new to the area. His credits include working as a Mark Twain impersonator since 1979. He wrote and performed an off-Broadway show called "Mark Twain's Last Stand."

Thomasson is a Banyan regular. He was in last season's "A Lesson From Aloes."

Details: July 18-Aug. 4 at the Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $55-$69. Information: 941-351-8000, www.banyantheatercompany.com.

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