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Oft-staged Walcott play reaches playwright's neighborhood

Derek Walcott, West Indian poet and playwright, has been living in the Boston area for four years, but his play ``Pantomime'' is just now having its first performances in this city. The production at the Boston Shakespeare Theater is putting Mr. Walcott's talent before appreciative audiences, who may have been unacquainted with his presence as a creative-writing teacher at Boston University. The theater organization itself has reason to be pleased at having a potential hit on its hands, since its stage is reportedly a candidate for destruction as part of a remodeling project. The building in which the Boston Shakespeare Company is a tenant is to be turned into residential condominiums in 1987.

``Pantomime'' came well recommended by a history of productions ranging from New York to Seattle, as well as abroad. Its staging in Boston is benefitting from strong performances by actors with Broadway as well as regional theater credentials.

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The two-character play involves a white Briton, in self-imposed Caribbean exile, and a black Trinidadian, seeking peace and quiet on Tobago island. The former, Harry Trewe, a former London music-hall entertainer, now runs a guest house on Tobago. The Trinidadian, Jackson Phillip, works for him, serving in a white coat that symbolizes their mutual attempt to uphold a high standard of manners amid the chosen remoteness.

As the action unfolds off-season, there are no guests, and the action consists entirely of the frequently abrasive but generally congenial interaction between the resort owner and his servant. Harry fights the tropical torpor and pictures himself making a success of the guest house by devising an entertainment for the expected tourist trade. He proposes that he and Jackson improvise a turnabout sketch in which the black will play Robinson Crusoe and the white man the cannibal, Friday. Jackson at first ridicules the idea but later throws himself into the project with a fervor that frightens Harry.

In the course of their discussions, ``Pantomime'' ranges thoughtfully and entertainingly over considerations of race relations as well as theater. Although Jackson protests, in preparations for the Crusoe skit, that ``Just a lot of talk is boring,'' the Walcott play engages in little else, and the opening-night audience found ``a lot of talk'' -- unfortunately spiced with considerable crudity -- could be totally engaging.

Terry Alexander plays the Trinidadian with a fine command of calypso rhythms in speech and song -- even shows a surprising skill at getting music out of a steel drum. In what is obviously the juicier of the two roles -- wider-ranging, more showy, more appealing in its sentiments -- Mr. Alexander has a marvelous time and gives the audience one, too. Chuck Stransky, as Harry, anchors the production with a prevailing moodiness, broken chiefly by flashes of anger and apprehension. The company's present small auditorium enforces an intimacy that heightens the threatening aspects of the play and puts nuances of performance into agreeably sharp focus.

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