RecommendedFrom the opening moment of Grim & Fischer, presented by Wonderheads, a two-person troupe from Portland, Ore., you know this is going to be something special. A lone figure slinks on stage to the strains of Mozart’s Requiem, carrying a black letter. His movements are precise, with the intense comical elegance you get from the best of the old Warner Brothers animations.
The actor is Andrew Phoenix, and he is wearing a balding, blue-gray mask that resembles a wizened, middle-aged man — a lawyer, perhaps — with a tilted lips and arched, asymmetrical eyes. He is Death, and he has come for the other character in this 50-minute pantomime, whose name we would only know from the title. She is Fischer, an elderly woman, played by Kate Braidwood (also in a large mask), who lives in a retirement home, and is visited by an orderly who brings her newspaper and meals.
What follows is a fantasia on what it means to grow old, to cheat death (for a while), to watch what death can do to those around you.
As the title suggests, it is grim, but this very trim production approaches it with astounding grace. There are also numerous moments of humor, many of which were a little too low and easy for my taste — flatulence and pop songs from the ’70s and ’80s. But there are some amazingly transcendent moments, as when the old woman reminisces about her husband, dancing and flirting with a sport coat he used to wear which she keeps as an emotional relic on an old hat rack.
Braidwood created the masks, and they are works of art in themselves. When worn by these two performers, they seem to be capable of various expression, even though there is no way the plaster could be moving the way real flesh does. Yet with the tilt of a head, the crook of the spine, a fluidity of feeling seems to flow from these characters.
Although there is no dialogue, what the characters are thinking, suffering and plotting seems transparent. The perfectly timed sound cues threaded throughout, sometimes as emotional underscoring and sometimes just the sound of the TV in Fischer’s room, provide the aural balance needed to keep the audience invested in the moment. Braidwood is also responsible for the production’s sound design, and she deserves additional praise for its inventiveness and drive. Special kudos also belong to stage manager Emily Windler, whose tight control over the technical components make her an unseen third in this performance.
The cast announced at the end of this production that they will only be performing Grim and Fischer two more times for this year’s Fringe, due to bookings in other cities. So, as with all great things in life, take advantage while it’s here, because it’s not here long.