The winner of the prestigious Best of Edinburgh Award in 2016 has alit in New York City for a limited run through March 5. I made a point of catching Life According to Saki not only because of its Scottish honor, but because I loved the short stories of the celebrated Victorian writer Saki (Hector Hugh Monroe) when I was young.
Written by Katherine Rundell, directed with energetic precision by Jessica Lazar, and based on stories by Saki, the show also touches on the writer’s life, specifically in the trench warfare of World War I, where he met his violent end in 1916 at age 45. Between vignettes of trench life, Saki (a charming performance by David Paisley) introduces a series of his twistedly funny stories, enacted with velvety charm and plenty of dry and sometimes Monty Python-esque humor by the razor-sharp, imported cast.
The 70-minute show opens with an air of poetic seriousness, with Saki reading a letter he wrote his sister from the front: “The boys have begun to refer to the trenches as the badger set. We have become creatures of twilight: digging, burrowing, waiting in the mud…” The badger metaphor is apt given the large presence of animals in the stories, on stage and on the page.
The talented members of the Atticist troupe (this is its impressive debut production) artfully operate furry and feathered puppets – chicken, pig, hyena – and a little puppet boy, too, all loaded with character. The secret is in the small details, e.g. rather than jumping zanily down from a height as a toy would, the puppets climb down carefully, as an actual creature does.
When not puppeteering, the actors easily take on and cast off gender-swapping roles as they dart from story to story, with intervals as soldiers in the trenches. It’s a well-oiled human machine.
A few jokes don’t click with American audiences. Most of the time, though, the humor and the pace stay vivid and snappy. Aside from a couple of snarky Donald Trump references, the whole thing is so very English in both content and style that it may not be every American’s cup of Darjeeling. But this American enjoyed it quite a lot.
A story about a heedless aristocratic despot pronouncing death on all people with mustaches has the absurdity of a Monty Python sketch. A slightly more refined sort of satire drives a tale of a shipboard romance between two people who aren’t sure how many children they have. A stressed-out politician is duped by means of an elaborate fantasy into forgetting his cares for a while. An aristocrat and her maidservant ride an ingeniously staged elephant through the Raj and endeavor to bag a tiger.
The stories add up to a brash comic-book portrait of upper-crust Victorian modes and mores as seen through the skewed lens of the inimitable Saki.
A couple of the stories do have droopy stretches. But the climactic tale of revenge, “Sredni Vashtar” – one that has flickered in my mind since I read it as an adolescent some 40 years ago – hits with the eerie heat of childhood. Life According to Saki has made me want to revisit the stories, and learn more about the man too.