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Bag&Baggage delivers a 'hilarious, disturbing' Graduate

COURTESY PHOTO: CASEY CAMPBELL PHOTOGRAPHY - Left to right, Eric St. Cyr (Ben), Arianne Jacques (Elaine), David Heath (Mr. Robinson) and Kymberli Colbourne (Mrs. Robinson) star in 'The Graduate.'Admittedly, it’s been almost 50 years since I saw the film version of "The Graduate" — but even so, Bag&Baggage’s current production surprised me. I just couldn’t believe how much I had forgotten. Through the miracle of Google, I quickly learned that Terry Johnson’s 2002 stage adaptation diverges wildly from the 1963 novella and 1967 motion picture.

The result, at least in the hands of director Scott Palmer, is a slightly bipolar mix of the really hilarious and the grimly disturbing, with a side of plain old depression to keep things interesting.

The play opens with newly minted college honor student Benjamin Braddock sitting on his bed wearing the wetsuit he was given for a graduation present — he is expected to leap into the family pool to demonstrate the suit’s effectiveness for a houseful of his upper-middle class parents’ guests.

Ben is overwhelmed with crippling ennui — unwilling and unable to hop cheerfully into the prosperous future envisioned by his parents and their cohort (hence, the iconic line “One word, Ben — plastics!”).

Paralyzed by lack of direction and a sense that life is fundamentally absurd and meaningless, he refuses to go downstairs to greet the guests, and ends up trapped in his bedroom by the libidinous Mrs. Robinson, eager to score some fresh meat.

Much of the rest of the play is spent exploring the comic potential of this unlikely sexual setup, until Ben makes the mistake of falling in love with naïve and idealistic Berkeley student Elaine, the Robinsons’ daughter. As Ben, Elaine and her mother negotiate these troubled waters, the play quickly shifts from bedroom farce to a gripping exploration of the darker themes embedded in the tale.

As one expects with Bag&Baggage, the leads are superb. Eric St. Cyr (Ben) creates an initially comic character so naturally that the laughs just find him — he never has to go out looking — and he pulls off all but full frontal nudity with remarkably good taste.

As the show and his character evolve, he moves from comedy to desperation, ending in a heart-wrenching scene that leaves the audience more than a little shaken.

Seen through the lens of the 21st century, Arianne Jacques (Elaine) is irritatingly self-effacing and naïve – we wonder how someone that smart can be simultaneously that dumb, but at the end she radiates a combination of strength and nurturing that complements and accommodates Ben’s disintegration.

The real stunner is Kymberli Colbourne (Mrs. Robinson). She is playfully seductive, at times a bit maudlin, yet she consistently projects a manipulative coldness that renders her character thoroughly unlikeable even at the funniest moments. We cannot help but feel a little sorry for Ben as he's simply no match for this version of Mrs. Robinson.

The rest of the cast members play multiple roles, and while they are by no means afterthoughts, they really serve as accessories for the pivotal central characters. Cassie Greer in her role as a stripper deserves triple kudos not only for her amazing outfit and confident strut, but also for actually making the tassels twirl on cue.

There are a couple of awkward moments that simply don’t ring true — David Heath (Mr. Robinson) just can’t sell his ax-swinging attack on Ben, and there are times when the receptionist and therapist are drawn (by the author, not the actors) too superficially to really fit. These false notes are few, and do not detract from the overall progression of the play.

Melissa Heller’s costume designs — especially the seamed stockings, virginal plaid skirt, ankle socks, period cocktail dress, pearls and industrial-strength lingerie — ensure that the audience will retain a sense of the time, place and social class that define the characters. The near-complete absence of color in the clothing combine with the featureless white cubbies of the set to reinforce the sterility of the figurative boxes in which these people are trapped.

This "Graduate" leaves us troubled and puzzled. Despite the strong comic elements, it is the profound emptiness that will endure after you leave the theater. In a world that seems poised on the brink of an unpredictable and jarring set of political, social and environmental realities, this production has the power to shake us. While it ultimately offers no answers, it compels an introspection that merits the Bag&Baggage motto: Real. Provocative. Theatre.

"The Graduate" runs through Oct. 2 at The Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.

A caution: there is enough nudity that the show is inappropriate for minors.