Saturday, April 16, 2011

The thoroughly Modern Theatre makes its debut

The renovated Modern Theatre at Suffolk University.
I caught a fun reading of Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women last weekend, by the Actors' Shakespeare Project, but I left singing the praises of its setting, the Modern Theatre, more than the play or production itself.

Just btw, I'm not one of those critics who like to pretend the other Elizabethans and Jacobeans are nearly in Shakespeare's league - even though Marlowe, Jonson and Webster are always of some interest, and have their respective brilliances, I've never seen a production of any of them that really worked. (And Middleton is probably in the tier below them.)  To be fair, a lot of Shakespeare productions don't work, either! But it always seems what's of most interest about Shakespeare's peers is their shared sense of decay and despair, even disgust; they all revel in humiliation and cruelty; the Bard seems to float above them like some kind of civilizing, timeless dream. (This sense of cynical darkness may be why the Jacobean genre was the only one the A.R.T. ever seemed really suited to, and why theatres like New York's Red Bull have made successes of these period pieces by tricking them up with downtown-dungeon paraphernalia that would have thrilled SNL's Stefon.)

But alas, the Actors' Shakespeare Project isn't really into dungeon culture, so Women Beware Women came off as black comedy (as Jacobean "tragedies," and Middleton in particular, often do).  Indeed, the climactic Saw-style death-off (by molten gold, trap door, poisoned arrow, etc.) was met with gales of happy laughter from the enthusiastic crowd.  But then the ASP cast had played the text mostly for laughs from the top; comedy is this troupe's forte, after all, and there were fun turns to savor here from Bill Barclay and particularly John Greene.  I think there's a deeper, more lushly rotten tone you could achieve with the material, but that would probably require an imaginative physical realization of the text.

John Lee Beatty (with paint) and Modern artistic director Marilyn Plotkins.
I do want to note, however, that the reading was helped immeasurably by its setting, the newly-restored Modern Theatre (at top).  ASP has decided to stage its upcoming Antony and Cleopatra here, as well as a few productions next season, and frankly, I can't imagine a better space for them (with one major proviso).  Intentionally or not, the ironically-titled "Modern" evokes the decadent gallery-atmosphere of past theatrical eras with surprising potency (and far more successfully than efforts like Shakespeare & Co.'s complex out in the Berkshires).  The acoustics of the space are quite good, and it's sizeable (almost 200 seats) while seemingly as intimate as a theatre half that scale.  And the blood-red murals that cover its walls (by stage designer John Lee Beatty, in action above) are ripely lurid yet brazenly spectacular (appropriately enough, they're executed in the crudely impressionistic style of set painting - they're a stage set for a stage set).   Best of all, there's a palpable connection here between stage and stalls - something rare in modern houses.  Indeed, I'd say that it's just as good as the dazzling Paramount next door - maybe even better - but for one unfortunate fact: you can hear the Orange Line rumbling past every now and then.  This is a real problem, and pretty much kills the space as a setting for serious music.  But believe it or not, I was able to tune out the T for much of Women Beware Women.  I'm hoping the more delicate strains of Antony and Cleopatra will survive the occasional shake, rattle and roll as well.  For after all, isn't the restored Globe on a flight path to Heathrow?  And who knows how much tavern (not to mention bear-baiting) noise was ambient in the theatre back in Shakespeare's day.  So when the Orange Line roars by, just pretend it's the royal barge or something.


  1. I found the subway more annoying as time wore on, and the music from Felt next door became very intrusive after intermission (annoying the performers as well as at least some of us in the audience). The extent to which you feel the subway varies quite a bit depending on where you're sitting -- we tried 3 different locations during the evening. But we came out of the reading convinced that we should try for matinees simply to avoid the music from Felt.

  2. Noise aside, I agree that the appearance of the theater is lovely, reminiscent of the Russian Tea Room and feeling beautifully intimate.

  3. Where I was sitting i did get the occasional dose of bass from Felt, I should have mentioned that. Sigh! (But then ASP patrons are used to bar tunes intruding on the Bard's own music.) I wonder if the Modern just isn't insulated enough - or if ANY insulation can really keep out over-amplified bass (one of pop culture's worst new tics)? Somehow the Paramount mainstage doesn't have this problem (although I've heard the occasional rattle and hum in the black box). At any rate, I still have to give the Modern a thumbs-up - although management might be advised to start at 7:30, not 8 (Felt doesn't gear up till after 10), and acoustically sensitive souls might opt for the matinee.

  4. I had a prior commitment so I had to miss the Women Beware Women reading, but I was there two days later for the reading of the Bob Brustein play, and I have been praising the Modern's gorgeous restoration all week to anyone inclined to listen.

  5. I've been looking forward to seeing Antony and Cleopatra ever since ASC announced it. I think it's a great play, but I've never seen it performed. And I think that ASC nearly always puts on a credible---sometimes brilliant---production.

    But now I'm undecided about seeing it, for one reason: they've cast Paula Plum as Cleo! I think she is a wonderful actor, but she is WAY too old to play this part. This is at least the second time I have felt that they cast a good actor in a part they were too old for, the other being casting Jenny Israel as Helena in MND. Ridiculous. I think there are some other ASC miscastings and I've come to think they are arrogant enough to think they can let any good actor tackle any role.

    I'll probably see A&C anyway. I might have to wait 20 years to catch another production in Boston.

    So I

  6. Actually, Cleopatra's not supposed to be in her first youth, you know; the historical Cleo was 39 at her death, and it's customary for actresses somewhat older to play her in A&C, as Shakespeare's main concern - almost uniquely in the canon - is a treatment of aging romantic love. I confess I have a few doubts about the reliable Ms. Plum's casting, too, but not because she's WAY old, but rather because her usual persona is so no-nonsense; still, she pulled off a sweet romanticism in Blithe Spirit a year or two ago; perhaps she can pull off a similar, more sultry trick for ASP. I think the talented old girl at least deserves a chance, don't you?