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Civic’s spy thriller gives timely commentary

Eva Lariviere as Hapgood and Ryan Shore as Ridley in a scene from the Spokane Civic Theatre production of “Hapgood.” (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eva Lariviere as Hapgood and Ryan Shore as Ridley in a scene from the Spokane Civic Theatre production of “Hapgood.” (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Tom Stoppard’s “Hapgood” is a puzzle box that may not have a key, a tricky, sometimes opaque morality play about duality, identity, paranoia and uncertainty. It’s most easily described as a Cold War thriller, but it’s also a somber character study and a dry comedy of manners, and its plot relies heavily on the ins and outs of quantum physics. Consider it a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

The acclaimed and oft-analyzed show, set in London in the 1980s, opens at the Spokane Civic Theatre this weekend. Director Jamie Flanery says “Hapgood” features some deceptively difficult set pieces – its wordless opening scene involves complex choreography between spies discreetly handing off information – and he received some directorial assistance from the Civic’s departing artistic director Keith Dixon.

“The show is very dialogue heavy, with some British humor mixed in as they comment on what’s happening in this spy world,” Flanery said. “It’s been enjoyably challenging creating characters and developing these actors. The challenging part is really coming now in terms of bringing it all together. It’s an incredibly technical show. … There are all these elements in creating this time and space.”

The play’s title character is Elizabeth Hapgood (played by Esa Lariviere in the Civic’s production), a spy who has risen to the top ranks of the British Secret Service. It’s difficult enough that her workplace is dominated by men (Hapgood is the only female character in the show), but she also finds herself juggling a burgeoning romance and the exploits of her teenage son.

“She’s able to hold her own in a man’s world,” Flanery said. “But we find out that she doesn’t play by the rules. She’ll use the Red Phone, which is a direct line to the prime minister, to make phone calls to her son. … She crosses the line, and maybe it’s too much.”

Hapgood discovers that somebody in her unit is leaking top secret information, and she immediately begins narrowing down the suspects. Could it be the unpredictable agent Ridley (Ryan Shore), or Blair (Terry Sticka), Hapgood’s direct superior? Or could it be Kerner (Dave Rideout), the Russian emigre who’s also the father of Hapgood’s son?

The details of Stoppard’s labyrinthine espionage plot grow ever stranger, and “Hapgood” coasts along on the playful ambiguity that’s typical of the playwright’s work. Stoppard, best known for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love,” delights in keeping the audience at arm’s length, and the confusion is part of the fun.

“There are a lot of things that (Stoppard) leaves to the interpretation of the director and actors,” Flanery said. “Even now, we’re still exploring what some things mean.”

And despite the specificity of its Cold War setting, “Hapgood” could just as well function as a commentary about 21st-century issues of advancing technology and increased surveillance.

“When we talk about (Edward) Snowden and even the political process we’re going through today – what do we see and what don’t we see? What’s real and what isn’t real?” Flanery said. “I think this piece will always be contemporary; it just so happens to be set in an era of different hairstyles and clothing.”

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