Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is Stratford better than New York?, Part II

Geraint Wyn Davies waves to the mob in Julius Caesar.

In this part of my annual Stratford Festival recap, I'll be looking at the productions that proved problematic or even outright unpleasant. But first I have to put forth the proviso that "problematic" doesn't always mean "less satisfying" - indeed, the first production on my list, James MacDonald's Julius Caesar, was easily the best production of this tragedy I've ever seen. To be honest, I've only seen three (plus the two film versions), but this only points up how rarely the show is done, considering its fame (I've seen just about every production I had a chance to). This is partly due no doubt to the drama's casting requirements (you need a large bevy of solid middle-aged male players, and at least three stars) - but also partly to its misshapen structure.

I call it "misshapen" because the play's obvious climax - the assassination of Caesar - occurs halfway through, at which point what was already an unusual form of tragedy (in which one sympathetic hero plots to kill another) shifts gears awkwardly into new psychological, political and aesthetic territory that remains vague in its form (and limits) until the very finish. We realize we're supposed to shift our allegiance to a new "tragic hero" (who has just killed the title character), and question the seeming motivations of nearly everyone we've met so far. But during this intriguing process the play all but abandons the clear elucidation of the history at hand, and at any rate its psychological and moral investigations come to an inconclusive pass; the ending of Caesar is multivalently ironic, and whether Shakespeare himself saw Brutus's end as tragic will, I think, always be debated.

I've yet to see a production (or movie!) make it through these straits unscathed, and the Stratford version was no exception; although it seemed clear that the director and actors understood the aesthetic questions at hand, even if they couldn't quite answer them. Perhaps it was this meta-awareness that made the production compelling despite its flaws. Or perhaps it was the fact that, to put it simply, when the play was coherent - and of course through its entire first half it's brilliant - so was James MacDonald's robust direction. Much in the first half thrilled; Macdonald's management of the Roman crowd was superb, and his delineation of the relationship between Cassius and Brutus was subtle and insightful. The dueling funeral orations (and their consequences), were rousingly staged, with the mob surging up and down the theatre's aisles, and even the near-hallucinatory sense of Rome tipping toward chaos was powerfully evoked.

Still, the remainder of the play disappointed, because while MacDonald proved a great stage conductor, he hadn't drawn compelling personal performances from his Brutus (Ben Carlson), Cassius (Tom Rooney), or Antony (Jonathan Goad), and the only way the fractured second half can grip us is through the power of these distinct personalities (ironically, the first half of the play can work via the interlocking plots of their public personae; but once the war begins, the script depends on their private dramas). Ben Carlson made an appropriately intellectual, but somehow rather too placid, Brutus, and Jonathan Goad, when not being manipulated by MacDonald, didn't seem to understand how he might connect the contradictory sides of Mark Antony. Meanwhile Tom Rooney provided a capable, but rather low-key Cassius. Still, the able Geraint Wyn Davies (at left) made just about the perfect Caesar, and there was admirable support in a number of minor roles (although not from the women, who seemed to have wandered in from another play).

There are several other plays to cover, btw, so my apologies for running on about Caesar. But I do have to add the one thought that kept surfacing during my experience of the production: "Why can't Boston have something like this?" Not even a great production of Julius Caesar, but merely an intelligent, interesting one? Why can't Harvard or BU see their way clear to funding that?

Well, we'll have to ponder that at some later date; for at the moment there are still three more Stratford productions to consider. And perhaps the most frustrating of these three was Martha Henry's production of Three Sisters, which to my mind seemed almost like a mirror image of Julius Caesar in its issues and effect. Henry, a highly lauded actress herself, drew superb performances from three of her actors - Lucy Peacock (Masha, at right in photo at left), Tom McCamus (Vershinin), and James Blendick (Chebutykin), and at least intermittently compelling ones from two more, Juan Chioran (Solyony) and Kelli Fox (Natasha). Henry even offered a few compelling new insights into the text (she hinted, for instance, that Natasha was pregnant before her marriage to Andrei - although perhaps not with his child). But in a play that, like all Chekhov, depends upon its ensemble, several key performances (including two of the three sisters) were weak - and Henry didn't seem to know how to compensate for this technically. Particularly in the final act, she left her actors flailing, whereas a director/conductor like MacDonald would have attended to pacing and orchestrated something more cohesive. The results were therefore on the one hand, occasionally shattering (particularly when Peacock and McCamus were onstage), but on the other hand, exasperatingly tedious. And as everyone knows, the trick to Chekhov is to not allow the tedium that the characters all complain of to extend to the audience, too.

An unusually passionate moment from Phèdre.

Particularly when tedium ruled another Stratford outing, a rare production of Racine's Phèdre (from a slightly mannered new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker - remember her?). The National Theatre's recent broadcast of Ted Hughes's freer, more dynamic translation (yes, two major Phèdres in a single year) gave a pretty good idea of how the play can succeed - via coiled, destructive passion - but director Carey Perloff took a very different route, to pretty disastrous results. Indeed, Perloff's direction felt almost like a textual thesis inappropriately deployed as a theatrical approach - sensing the strict discipline of Racine's verse, and the Catholic aura of sexual suppression in his moralism, Perloff ran with those as the core of her interpretation, rather than sensing actual drama would require some sort of conflict with those precepts. Thus the usually phenomenal Seana McKenna was stuck working in a kind of straitjacket, and of the supporting cast, only Tom McCamus brought much interest to his Theseus (and then only in a worldly way that made little sense of his impulsive actions). The seventeenth-century-inspired fashions were lovely, and occasionally the production did achieve a tone of something like muted transcendence, but that was hardly enough to carry it through even its relatively-brief 100-minute running time. During the performance I attended, a patron actually fell asleep and rolled off her chair like a log. Luckily, she wasn't hurt by a response that, as criticism, couldn't have been more pointed.

My final production at Stratford was a studio version of George F. Walker's Zastrozzi (Rick Roberts, at right, as the title character), a play which at the time of its writing (the 70's) was quite popular up north, but never achieved much of a profile in the U.S. (Walker has become better-known since, although this is the first piece by him I've seen). The script was graced by a truly brilliant production, directed by the up-and-coming Jennifer Tarver and featuring a dazzling cast led by Sarah Orenstein (late of the Shaw), Oliver Becker, Andrew Shaver and John Vickery. But alas, as one reviewer put it, this only made it obvious that the flaws in the show were indeed built right into the script.

Said script is certainly an odd duck, and one that perhaps too often flies in circles, but which sometimes takes wing with a surreal resonance. Zastrozzi, an evil genius and self-proclaimed "master criminal of Europe," is bent on killing Verezzi, a self-proclaimed artistic visionary whose visions are, for the most part, psycho-art-babble. Zastrozzi's motive is simply the mediocrity of Verezzi's art - he's killed off plenty of second-rate artists before; indeed, he argues that he can't wait for God to administer artistic justice, because he's an atheist.

But there are other, deeper psychological issues moving beneath Zastrozzi's M.O., including the murder of his mother - and he soon finds himself mixing it up with a whip-wielding dominatrix (Orenstein), a priest searching for salvation (Vickery), a hatchet man with an axe to grind (Becker) and a virgin who's always in the wrong place at the wrong time (Amanda Lisman), all of whom seem to be floating in a non-determinate space which director Tarver suggests might be an insane asylum. Walker's method throughout is to spike twisty metaphysical argument with sitcom-level one-liners, an amusing enough mix, to be sure - but we find ourselves wishing he'd stick with one line of argument for longer than he seems able or willing to do. The results are therefore more superficial than the playwright intends, or pretends; still, the play remains intriguing enough that I hope to see more Walker in these parts sometime soon.

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