“Hapgood” is a study of duplicates, a spy thriller about a search for a double agent that has ulterior motives of its own. Every character, every twist of the plot and every turn of phrase in Tom Stoppard’s tricky and brainy story is serving multiple (and sometimes contradictory) purposes. Stoppard lets us peer behind the curtain of a complicated operation, though we’re not always sure that what we’re seeing is reality.
The show, directed by Jamie Flanery and currently running at the Spokane Civic Theatre, moves along at a rapid clip and trusts that the audience will catch up. I’ll do my best to relay the basics of the plot, even if I don’t think I’d be able to pass a test on all the play’s double crosses and mistaken identities after a single viewing.
Its opening scene sets the tone, taking us into a thwarted operation involving changing rooms at a public pool, a pair of duplicate briefcases and the unexpected presence of identical twins that throws off a unit of British spies. It’s indicative of the whole piece, throwing us headlong into the middle of some perplexing action while setting up the play’s running themes of identity and duality.
Elizabeth Hapgood (Esa Lariviere), a high-ranking British spy at the height of the Cold War, soon learns that one of her agents is likely supplying top-secret information to the Russians. “Hapgood” basically takes the form of a whodunit, as Hapgood works through the suspects: Her immediate superior Blair (Terry Sticka), an erratic agent named Ridley (Ryan Shore) and the Russian expat and sleeper agent named Kerner (Dave Rideout).
We discover that Hapgood has a past with all three men and a child with one of them, which makes her nickname of “Mother” another of the show’s many double entendres. She is a shrewd agent, but her impulsiveness often gets in the way of her work: She uses the direct line to 10 Downing Street to order new rugby boots for her son Joe (Taylor Jennings), and she perhaps gets too close to some of her operatives.
Her portrayal is just as much of a puzzle as the espionage plot at the center of the play. I sense some latent chauvinism on Stoppard’s part – Hapgood’s role in the operation is sometimes limited to being either maternal or sexual in nature – but he also allows her to frequently be a step ahead of everyone else. We see her playing an ongoing game of chess with another operative over the phone without a board, and the play is structured similarly to a chess match, setting up its pieces in the first act and moving them about in the second.
“Hapgood” also presents itself as an obstacle course for its actors. It runs more than two hours, its individual acts are lengthy and it features monologues that stretch over several pages. Flanery’s cast holds its own in the face of difficult material – there were some nearly flubbed lines on opening night, but I’m certain those kinks will eventually be ironed out – and they handle Stoppard’s dry comedy and ping-ponging ripostes as confidently as the darker, more violent content.
As Stoppard’s clockwork plot unfolds, two more sets of twins (one real and one fake) come into play, and I took notes up until the point when I realized it was a futile gesture. “Hapgood” requires our full attention – its lengthy, breathless discussions of quantum mechanics and particle physics supply enough material for a play unto themselves – and it tosses off more information than an audience can likely process in the moment.
But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s dramatically impenetrable. Once Stoppard reaches his third act, we’ve begun to piece things together; by the time we’re left to wander out of the theater, everything clicks into place. Like any good piece of detective fiction, “Hapgood” contains seemingly inconsequential or merely decorative elements that end up adding to the overall atmosphere of the show. If you’re willing to go along with Stoppard’s complex, tightly wound plot machine, “Hapgood” is a lot of highbrow, brain-twisting fun.