Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Into the woods with Tom Stoppard

Sir Tom Stoppard in thermodynamic repose.
I do love Arcadia; I've loved it ever since I read it, before I'd ever seen it.  To me, it's Tom Stoppard's best play - and certainly one of the classics of the twentieth century - even if it's not his most original, and even if I'm not really prepared to defend its achievement against such possible rivals as Travesties or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

The "trouble" with Arcadia, of course, is that it's so synthetic, and its organizing structure so brazenly borrowed from A.S. Byatt's Possession (almost as compensation, you sometimes think, the playwright offers a Stoppard-like antagonist to a Byatt-like scholar right in the middle of the script), while many of its debates, as Boston Lowbrow's Bryce Lambert points out, are stolen from James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science.  But even if by borrowed means, Stoppard conjures in Arcadia an elaborate entertainment (indeed, an old-fashioned play of ideas) that perfectly balances his frisky wit with a mournful awareness of life's terrible vicissitudes - as well as breezy discussions of not only poetry, landscape architecture, and the Romantic period, but also chaos theory, fractal geometry, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (with Fermat's Last Theorem thrown in as a kind of aperitif).

Stoppard's conceit is that even as we watch a set of academic sleuths in the present day dig about in a country manor for clues about Lord Byron (who once visited), we can simultaneously watch, through some sort of time warp, the historical record of that fateful weekend back in 1809.  Today's intellectuals rattle on about sex and the romantic imagination; little do they know their counterparts two centuries ago were consumed instead with thoughts of sex and science - largely because a mathematical prodigy was on the premises, in the person of young Thomasina Coverly (note the similarity of that first name to Stoppard's own, Tomáš - yes, his ego et in Arcadia). She was the real "genius" of the house, not Byron, although her achievements, like her short life, were lost; our true history is always a secret, Stoppard whispers (thus Thomasina's descendant in the present day won't speak at all) - even as he braids together C.P. Snow's two cultures of science and the humanities more intimately than perhaps any one else has ever managed; indeed, the playwright's final images are of the two ages (and cultures) dancing around each other in an entwined enchantment.

All this, of course, makes Arcadia quite a challenge - it requires a large, poised and articulate cast that can bring off serious debate and romantic feeling as well as high comedy (and a director who knows how to keep that delicate balance).  So it felt like a stretch for a fringe company - still, I had heard good things about the Bad Habit version (which closed, alas, last weekend - this is a post-mortem, but then that's kind of appropriate for Arcadia).  And I've often been surprised at what the fringe can do - indeed, every season a fringe show ranks in my top 10 for the year.

Greg Nussen and David Lutheran make their way through the thickets of Arcadia.
So I wasn't shocked to discover that this Arcadia was, indeed, a solid effort - wittily directed and mostly well-acted, with one or two stand-out performances.  To be honest, it was helped immensely, in my view, by being apparently acted by smart, quirky people who understood what it was about, rather than by a crowd of Equity actors attempting to simulate a professorial intelligence they didn't really have.  Alas, a few mis-castings, and one or two failures in acting energy (there was little sexual heat in this version) kept it, I think, from greatness.  Still, director Daniel Morris and his cast did well by Stoppard's ideas - and there are a lot of those in Arcadia; as should be the case with this particular play, you could feel the audience paying close attention to everything that transpired, eager to catch every multi-layered quip and witty aside (a sight not often seen at our larger stages, I'm telling you).  And I felt that the decision to produce the script on the stage of the Wimberley Theatre, in the round, proved inspired; I'd always thought of Arcadia as a proscenium show, but something about the arena staging, with its matrix of exits and entrances, resonated with the play's themes; the only thing lacking, alas (and you rarely get this anyway), was the backdrop of romantically ruined grounds that are meant to be seen outside the windows of "Sidley Park" - and which become freighted with more and more tragic meaning as the play progresses.

But this reminds me, I'm afraid, of the one great failure in Morris's otherwise astute direction - the play's final tragedy, which Stoppard never states directly (and which I can't give away without ruining the sad magic of its discovery) - didn't really coalesce in the audience's mind, I don't think, as the curtain fell (although perhaps it did after later discussion). That gap, however, was connected intimately to the production's other great gap - in the pivotal role of Thomasina's besotted tutor, Septimus Hodge, young Greg Nussen proved woefully inadequate.  Mr. Nussen is very nice to look at - and his voice is a pleasing purr; but his blandness was a constant reminder that, as they say, beauty isn't everything.  And his performance was a particular problem because Septimus Hodge is supposed to have the passionately beating, ultimately broken heart at the center of the script!

Luckily, everyone else seemed to know what they were doing - even when they weren't quite right for their respective roles - so generally the play moved forward without him. John Geoffrion, for instance (a frequent commenter on this blog, btw), brought a welcome spark to Bernard Nightingale, the egotistical, Stoppard-like Byron expert who stomps all over the work of the Byatt-like Hannah Jarvis.  Geoffrion was one of those slight miscastings in the show that worked pretty well anyway - he played Nightingale as more of a twit than a dick, and so the sexual tension between him and Jarvis went missing - but he threw himself with such eager fire into his rants on art and science that you didn't really mind.  Meanwhile, as Jarvis, Sarah Bedard didn't seem to mind the lack of tension either; Bedard is a beauty, and projected the right kind of skeptical intelligence as Jarvis, but she was always too calm for me to really believe in her slow burn - nor did I quite see her put together the script's great mystery in her head (Nightingale's thesis on Byron is an ego-driven fantasy, but Jarvis steadily works her way toward something like the truth).

Still, Bedard managed many a witty turn of phrase, and there were similarly nice turns from many in the cast.  As the smartly sluttish Lady Croom, for instance, A. Nora Long didn't convince me as a sexual raptor, but her drily rendered sarcasm was always delightful; meanwhile, Nick Chris was utterly believable as Stoppard's brilliant exponent of chaos, but didn't always have the sensitive vulnerability that surfaces now and then in the part (and which afflicts his entire eccentric family).  There were more consistently satisfying comic turns from David Lutheran, as an idiotically pompous cuckold, and especially Glen Moore, as his blowhard companion.  Meanwhile Luke Murtha was always sweetly intriguing as that silent brother.  But at the center of the production was a really spectacular turn by newcomer Alycia Sacco as the sparkling Thomasina - easily the best performance of this role I've seen out of four professional productions.  Whenever Sacco giggled, or waltzed to Chopin, or uncertainly offered a brilliant solution to an unsolved theorem, the show all but belonged to her, and you felt art and science dancing together (for a brief moment) just as Stoppard meant them to.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sara Topham and Ben Carlson in The Misanthrope at Stratford.
Two or three years ago, Robert Brustein took back the notorious position he had sketched out in his 1967 call-to-arms, "No More Masterpieces," with a wimpy apology titled, aptly enough, "More Masterpieces." (For some reason, he forgot the "please.")  In it, the former artistic director of the A.R.T. - who had given the go-ahead to one desecration of the Western canon after another for something like two decades - finally whimpered that he was "ready to concede that the postmodern movement may have gone too far."

Okay - thanks for sharing, Bob!  We'll file that under "Far Too Little and Twenty Years Too Late," as we trip off to see Diane Paulus's Happy Meal re-write of Porgy and Bess at the theatre you founded!

But what recently called Brustein's pathetic essay(s) to my mind was the sad response to a genuine masterpiece that's unfolding right now at the Stratford Festival in Canada.  David Grindley's sparkling production of Molière's The Misanthrope - in Richard Wilbur's brilliant translation, of course - will be lighting up the Festival's main stage through October 29, and if you're in Toronto or Detroit, or on the East Coast, or really anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere during that time, you may want to make the journey out to Stratford to catch it.  If you love Molière, you really owe yourself the trip.

For I promise you will never see a better production; indeed, this is the best version of the great French playwright I've ever seen - even the best I've seen at Stratford, which has a long tradition of exquisite success in Molière. The idea for this mounting was originated by Brian Bedford - fresh from his triumph on Broadway with The Importance of Being Earnest - and was clearly chosen as a showcase for two of the Festival's leading actors, Ben Carlson and Sara Topham (at top), both of whom have made reputations for themselves as exponents of articulate theatre for thinking people. Bedford himself has a curiously similar rep, only with a twist.

This distinguished actor is, I'd argue, also the most versatile and successful director at Stratford (which makes him one of the best in North America); I always schedule his production on the roster of my annual visit, and frankly I've never been seriously disappointed, even though the variety of his output has been stunning (everything from Waiting for Godot to Private Lives to King Lear - yes all of them strikingly good). But Bedford's method makes him an outlier in our current theatre; over the years he has known everyone and been in everything, and so clearly bases his productions on his own well of experience from past versions he's had first-hand knowledge of; indeed, I'm not sure I've ever seen Bedford direct a script that he himself hadn't already been in, years before.

This makes him the last exemplar of an oral tradition which is dying in the theatre - he is clearly passing down how things are done to the next generation of actors, just as parents pass down their religious and cultural customs to their offspring. Indeed, when you watch a Bedford production, you sometimes wonder if you aren't also watching the ghosts of Michael Langham and Tyrone Guthrie moving across the stage behind the actors. Bedford is, in short, the personification of everything that Robert Brustein was trying to destroy with "No More Masterpieces."

Alas, due to illness Brian had to step down from The Misanthrope (he had also hoped to play Oronte - as he often manages smoothly the double trick, as in Earnest, of directing a sterling production while also shining as its star). But the ailing actor left the production in good hands - director David Grindley is also an old hand at Molière, and he has replaced Bedford with the able Peter Hutt (whom we usually see at the Shaw). The rest of the cast, which included Stratford mainstay Juan Chioran and another Shaw alumna, the great Kelli Fox (the more-talented sister of Michael J.) left one with little doubt that the production would be splendid.

Still, I was slightly surprised at just how splendid it turned out to be. John Lee Beatty's set - all chandeliers and Boucher - was ravishing, and Robin Fraser Paye's costumes would have seemed almost too scrumptious if they hadn't also been so sly - Célimène floated in a cloud of cream and cherry, below, while Alceste stewed in a vat of pale green.  For the record, the production wasn't entirely "traditional" - it was subtly updated by a century, from Molière's own era to the decades just before the "deluge" that Louis XV predicted, when rococo manners had reached their absolute zenith. Thus the usual brittle chorus of seventeenth-century harpsichords was replaced by the mournful calls of eighteenth-century viols, and a melancholic, twilit mood always seemed to be almost in the offing.

A perfect cast in perfect costumes on a perfect set . . . but sorry, the critics aren't buying!
At the center of all this corrupting luxury, Ben Carlson's unhappily honest Alceste and Sara Topham's delectably flirtatious Célimène were clearly a match for each other intellectually - and a match romantically, too, which brought to the comedy's bitter finale a surprisingly poignant tinge of tragedy; I've never felt more for these two, or for the loss of their mutual love. Perhaps this was because Carlson proved a surprisingly humane Alceste - he was more exasperated than disgusted with mankind's hypocritical follies, an approach which generally worked wonderfully, although perhaps at the finish Carlson lacked the inner, puritanical rigidity which makes sense of his final ultimatum to poor Célimène. Meanwhile Topham - who has never looked more beautiful - was far more than just a vivacious coquette; she had a taste for snark, it's true, but her Célimène was also a brilliant wit as well, and one both rebelling against the strictures of her social role while understanding that at twenty she was still allowed a little room for child's play.

These two lead performances were wonderful enough - I'd even go so far as to say that Topham's was definitive - but Grindley's work with the milieu of these two mismatched romantics was what really made the production memorable. Generally Molière's misanthrope must make his way through a gallery of simpering fops - but here, he was swimming in a tank of sharks. Kelli Fox's Arsinoé - a would-be moral puppetmaster with her claws only barely in her gloves - was truly chilling in her hauteur, and for once her conversations came off as the calculated duels they truly are. And even Peter Hutt's Oronte - often played as something close to an idiot - was here a scheming climber, with an angry taste for brutality sometimes peeking out from under his silks. Given this environment, the weary gentility of Juan Chioran's Philinte and Martha Farrell's Eliante truly charmed - although it must be said that with an exquisitely attentive irony, director Grindley allowed even his villains their own heartbreaks and disappointments.

Indeed, perhaps the intellectual balance of this production was what made it most remarkable; sometimes Molière's brilliant point-counterpoint structures seemed to almost float in space before us as the characters conversed.  I confess I've never really felt that Molière, great as he is, was quite in Shakespeare's league; but this production made me almost change my mind (at least in the case of this particular play).

But alas, few of the Canadian critics were so persuaded - because, rather obviously, they'd never gotten Brustein's second memo, and were still in thrall to the first.   Their reviews were in a way heartbreaking, however, because they could tell how wonderful a show this was, but somehow they just couldn't admit it to themselves.  The erratic Richard Ouzonian, of the Toronto Star, for instance, confessed that the acting was "flawless" and the production "beautifully designed and carefully staged." But that wasn't enough, he carped - because there was no concept:

Except for some hats and scarves that Celimene tries on at her first entrance, there are no props. None. No one sips a coffee or drinks some wine. There’s no texture, nothing to tell us more about the world these characters live in other than that they’re well-dressed, bitchy and chatty.

And finally, in a line that might have been lifted directly from Brustein:

Before our eyes, it turns into a classy evening of museum theatre, something from long ago we look at and revere, but never really understand.

Ugh. One wonders, then, why costume dramas like The Tudors flourish on cable.  Meanwhile J. Kelly Nestruck, of the Globe and Mail, likewise half-believed his own eyes, and wrote:

"David Grindley’s production of The Misanthrope dares to let an audience find the modern resonance in Molière’s masterpiece, rather than thrusting it upon them with camera-phones and references to Twitter."

But then in an abrupt reversal he added:

"It neatly illustrates both the pleasures and the perils in such a straight-forward approach, however, as its solidness is matched by a stuffiness – and actors stuck in gorgeous, but stifling costumes that seem to wear them rather than vice versa."

Sigh.  Almost schizophrenic, no? Yet those were both typical of the press's scarily anhedonic reactions: "This is a marvelous production," the critics agreed, "only it's not, really, because it's traditionally costumed." It's enough to make you wonder at the superficiality of these people, and perhaps muse at the lock-step orthodoxy of the supposedly "revolutionary."

So please, somebody send around Brustein's latest to the Canadian papers! Then maybe theatres can continue to keep what's best about our theatre alive - until that happy day when Brustein himself is long forgotten, and we'll once again be allowed to have more masterpieces.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The renovations at Boston Ballet are complete


19 Clarendon St. from Boston Ballet on Vimeo.

Boston Ballet has announced the completion of a suite of renovations to its headquarters at 19 Clarendon Street. The project - led by Jeanne Nutt of the global design firm Gensler (and also a member of the Ballet's Board of Overseers) includes fresh coats of paint, new furniture, a reconfigured lobby and refurbished locker rooms, among other improvements. But perhaps of greatest interest to the Boston community is a new seating system for the Ballet's giant Studio 7 which can accommodate up to 144 guests with excellent sightlines. The space will provide a venue for performances by Boston Ballet School students and Boston Ballet II, as well as presentations of works by Boston Ballet, and demonstrations and lectures.  In essence, we just got a brand-new dance theatre. So thank you, Boston Ballet donors!

Good-bye to all that


In Boston, August is the kindest - rather than the cruelest - month; indeed, if a month could win "Best of Boston," it would be August, hands down. In fact the city's old hands know to vacation in July, because once the summer terms end, not only are all the students gone, but the damn professors are, too. And suddenly the city is transformed: parking spaces open up, the highways aren't clogged, the T isn't jammed, and Boston becomes bizarrely livable (along as you're not a neighbor of the Talaat brothers, that is). These days there's still theatre, too - plus Restaurant Week (which, alas, ends today). If only there were no Red Sox home games, everything would be perfect; even as it is, however, August is heaven, and enough to make you wish that everybody could just go to college over the Web, like they do in Phoenix. Wouldn't that be nice? For the money to roll into town without the actual student population showing up? Sigh . . . oh, well! It all ends this weekend, and with a crash; Mother Nature herself plans to have a good cry over the passing of my favorite month.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Good news for the theatre? Paula Vogel steps down at Yale (sort of)

Most readers of the Hub Review know of my low opinion of playwright Paula Vogel (at left) - or at least of the influence she has wielded from her academic posts in the playwriting departments at Brown and Yale. Indeed, sometimes I think Vogel may have done more damage to our theatre than any other single person (short of Diane Paulus!). Largely thanks to Vogel - or rather her students - contemporary playwriting has taken a decidedly strange turn toward politically-correct (and usually immaturely whimsical) superficiality; indeed, it might not be too much to call this vogue "Vogelism," and if you doubt its prevalence, consider that her students have included the dreaded Sarah Ruhl and the even more relentlessly twee Jordan Harrison, as well as Nilo Cruz, Lynn Nottage, Adam Bock, and Gina Gionfriddo - all of whom we've seen on major stages in these parts while older, more interesting playwrights have gone begging for productions. Sorry, Fornes! Too bad, Barker! Our major theatres have to make room for the latest from one of Vogel's students instead - or maybe for the great lady herself, who can count on a premiere at the Arena Stage, Public Theater, Huntington, or Trinity Rep for basically anything she writes (as you can see from the web of connections I've sketched out below - and I'm sure I don't know them all!).


But now the New York Times has reported that Vogel will be stepping down from her post at Yale - or rather just backing off its administrative responsibilities - the better to concentrate on upcoming projects. Which is one of those things that make me go, "Hmmmm."  On the one hand, I feel any diminishment in Vogel's status is good news for those of us who love the theatre; on the other hand, she'll now have more time to write, and she'll still be "mentoring writers" - two things that we don't want her to do.

So I'm on the fence as to the positive salience of this development.  There other signs, however, that "Vogelism" may be fading in its influence.  Recently there have been a few "green shoots" of critical thought  about the style in the blogosphere - the last place you'd expect them, frankly, because theatre blogs are generally tilted toward the mindsets of playwriting grad students and other Vogelites.  But even some of these folks are beginning to perceive that - well, their plays just aren't making much of an impact, and seem to be getting more and more alike in terms of style.  Their posts are touchingly earnest, in that mechanical, millennial kind of way - as well as a bit pathetic; they grope about wonkishly in the formal vocabulary of the academy for some precise technical explanation for why things seem to be going wrong.  It doesn't occur to them, of course, that they're simply products themselves, on a kind of conveyor belt engineered by the academy, and that Mama Vogel has a whole new crop of them to push onto the stage every season.

A few years ago, I coined the term "the academic-theatrical complex" to describe this state of affairs.  I remember back then that local "critic" Bill Marx emailed me in a huff to demand what, exactly, I meant by such a term. Marx, of course, works as a lecturer at Boston University, so I suppose his intellectual myopia was understandable.   But by now isn't it obvious what I meant? We now have a house style of new play development, and it's largely dominated by a single figure sitting in the center of a web of professional relationships. And that style is essentially a portrait of a single community (or class, in both senses of the word), at a certain stage of life (the college years) - and clearly it serves the political interests of a certain industry: the academy. As a critic there's very little I can do about any of this - the H.M.S. Vogel and her fleet have sailed on despite my warnings; but at least I can report my satisfaction whenever I see a possible crack in the lead battleship's armor.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gabriel Kuttner, Liz Hayes, and Daniel Berger-Jones get romantic in Love Song.
I admit that up until recently I kind of hated playwright John Kolvenbach.  I detested his Fabuloso, and felt that his On An Average Day should really have been credited to "Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard, as told to John Kolvenbach."

So I dragged myself to Orfeo Group's current production of his latest, Love Song (at the Charlestown Working Theatre through this Saturday) with a heavy heart.  And determined to jump ship at intermission (as is my current habit!) if things headed south.

Well, there was no intermission.  (Ha!  Fooled again by that old A.R.T. trick!!!) So I had to stay till the end.

But I was glad I did, and I also admit that the production made me change my mind about John Kolvenbach.

A little bit.

For believe it or not, there's at least one really good idea - and maybe two - banging around inside Love Song.  The trouble is, John Kolvenbach himself doesn't quite realize how good these ideas are!  So inevitably, after initially striking out into truly original territory, the playwright slowly returns to the familiar "whimsical" tropes of (wait for it) . . . . Fabuloso.  Before our eyes, he turns back into . . . John Kolvenbach.

Aargh.   It's really too bad there's no intermission!  Still, there is that first half .  . . which convinced me that Kolvenbach has a spark of actual talent - as opposed to mere facility.  But thinking back, even in the sitcommy Fabuloso, there were cold glints here and there that hinted at the playwright's weird sense of emotional isolation - and he pushes that angle to amusing new heights in Love Song, which centers on a kind of metaphysically-autistic hero, "Beane" (Gabriel Kuttner) who is so relentlessly reductive he can't see the point of raincoats (since your skin is waterproof already!) and rants at the redundancy of owning a fork when you've already got a spoon.

Needless to say, "love" has no place in Beane's worldview - although "fear" certainly does; he has begun to imagine the walls (or in designer Cristina Todesco's brilliant re-working of the CWT space, the ceiling) have begun to close in on him.  His Nazi-yuppie sister (Liz Hayes) and her whipped, but wise-cracking, husband (Daniel Berger-Jones) aren't much help when it comes to human connection, either; it takes them several minutes to even notice Beane when he arrives in their white-on-white apartment, and their idea of "relating" to him is to give him a personality test (which he fails hilariously, in the play's funniest set-piece).

So far, so good; but Kolvenbach has an even better gambit up his sleeve - he pushes his lead character all the way through the emotional keyhole, as it were, when a female thief, "Molly" (Georgia Lyman) invades his apartment and subjects him to her own interrogation.  Molly is a funny kind of burglar, though: she specializes in stripping from apartments that special vase or painting people have carefully chosen as a personal statement; she's a kind of personality thief - the reductionist turned inward.  And as Beane has nothing to steal in his apartment, in a way she's forced to take him instead.

The resulting "romance" at first feels just as freshly astringent as what has come before - even though it's rather obvious (particularly to those who remember that high-school chestnut Harvey) what big "twist" Kolvenbach has rolled up his sleeve.  Still, the playwright keeps up an admirably conflicted tone as Beane at first rejuvenates his own life, and then his sister's, with what amounts to joyful self-delusion.  The trouble is, the script steadily grows more sappy, in the manner of King of Hearts and Harold and Maude, and Kolvenbach again doesn't seem to appreciate the quirky originality of his own second theme - that the blossoming of Beane's sister "Joan" is a troubling kind of emotional vampirism.  By the time the curtain is rung down (at ninety minutes, roughly the limit of the millennial attention span), there has been some chatter about light and dark, and a few perorations about bodily fluids and other gross stuff, and we have been regaled that "all you need is love" - and the clever, cold quirk of the piece's opening scenes has all but been forgotten.

Oh, well!  From the response of the audience, it was obvious that the hipsters of today, beneath their jaundiced 'attitudes,' are just as sentimental as the hipsters of yesteryear, and it's certainly hard to fault Orfeo's slickly enjoyable production.  As noted, Cristina Todesco's set is a stroke of genius, and Katherine O'Neill's costumes were nearly as good; meanwhile Peter Bayne's music and sound design, though over-amplified, seemed to hit all the right notes.  Director Risher Reddick kept his foot firmly on the gas, and directed with a tight technical flourish - which, frankly, the Orfeans seem to like; only Kuttner came through with a fully interior performance, it seemed to me (but then a "lack" of visible technique has long been his specialty).  Indeed, for a while the contrast between Beane and the other characters was all the more resonant because the respective actors' performance styles were so different.

This worked less well, however, as the show progressed, but the high finish always kept the show moving, and light on its feet.  Still, I wished the confident Georgia Lyman could have been a little spookier as Molly.  And surely there are more dimensions to the horrifying Joan than the talented Liz Hayes limns here (funny as she is); likewise, the perennially clever Daniel Berger-Jones found a zillion ways to launch her husband's zingers, but never really drew out into genuine (if covert) drama his horrified hostility toward his driven wife.  And just beneath the surface, isn't Joan just as lonely and reductive as her brother?  I think that's the idea - but you would have been hard-pressed to pick that up from these performances (the set designer got it, but the actors didn't).

Still, it was apparent from the response in the house that Orfeo has a hit on its hands, and they're certainly talented and hard-working enough to deserve one.  And I'll admit that Kolvenbach half-deserves the accolades he has received for Love Song.  The question now is - can he go the distance through an entire play? Only time will tell.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Just back from seeing even more Shakespeare


My apologies for not posting for the past few days, but I've been on my annual trek to the Stratford Festival in Canada, where, yes, I saw even more Shakespeare - Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Twelfth Night, and Merry Wives of Windsor - along with The Homecoming and The Misanthrope. Of the Shakespeares, only Richard III proved truly compelling - but both The Homecoming and especially The Misanthrope were superb. More to come later this week - along with a review of Love Song and a few catch-up posts on unfinished business . . .

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Quick takes: The T Plays and The Sound of Music

You never know who you'll meet on the T - or in "The T Plays."
The Mill 6 Collaborative's "T Plays" have become, as fellow blogger Art Hennessey has noted, one of our small theatre scene's few traditions. A tradition I have subscribed to from the very beginning, btw, and I admit I respond to the announcement of the T plays' annual return in much the same way I do to those "Attention Passengers . . " announcements that let you know a train is imminent when you're waiting on the platform of the T itself.

But sometimes the ensuing ride isn't as smooth as it might be, and I'm afraid this year's T plays offered more than their usual share of bumps, starts and stops.  Or maybe the trouble is that I've just seen too many of them by now!  So I come to the party burdened with memories of past successes, and rarely feel that pleasant surprise many first-timers experience at the fact that such a project could be brought off at all - much less in a generally entertaining fashion.

Still - that's what you get when you invite a critic: the burden of past experience!  So I have to note that the tropes of T Plays past - rabid Red Sox fans, gay people, and aquatic escapees from the Aquarium - were resurrected somewhat predictably in this year's models, and to somewhat diminishing comic returns, it seemed to me.  But then what are you going to write about when you need to finish your T play in a single weekend, if not the weirdos you encountered on your ride?  (Btw, this time Mormons made their first appearance, I think - but something tells me they'll be back.)

But it wasn't just the slightly pre-fab "outrageousness" of the characters that worked against these skits - it was also a choppy, time-warpy, are-they-crazy-or-are-YOU-crazy "aesthetic" that doomed a few to near-incoherence.  Too many playwrights in this town have been watching too much Sarah Ruhl, it seemed to me - and as usual, the more traditionally-structured sketches came off best.  These included John Greiner-Ferris's Striking Out the Peanut Man, Rick Park's Stolen Breath, and Kristin Baker and Dan Milstein's 88 is the 88th Loneliest Number.  Luckily all the actors proved game and talented, although a few performances stood out on the platform, particularly those from Luise Hamill, Mal Malme, Brian Bernhard and Lindsay Eagle (above left), and newcomer Kelley Estes.  You still have time to catch the "T Plays," btw, through this Saturday at the Factory Theatre.

Meanwhile I wanted to offer a quick post-mortem on the Reagle Music Theatre's production of The Sound of Music, which closed last weekend to little press attention, even though it was quite a solid production of this perennial crowd-pleaser. I have to admit I didn't feel I really needed to see The Sound of Music again - although apparently a lot of people felt differently; the gigantic auditorium at Waltham High School, where Reagle stages its productions, was packed to the rafters. And you could certainly feel the love in the house; every song was greeted with rapturous applause, and the two little girls behind me sang along softly with most of the numbers.

Of course the large crowd meant that the air-conditioning was on full blast, which in turn meant that the vent above the critics' seats was dripping, as it often does. I admit I enjoy this wry little convention of Reagle's in a meta-way; "We think you're a drip!" the vent above keeps telling you. This time I actually had an umbrella in my bag, though, and I was sorely tempted to use it. Maybe next time I will!

But back to the production. As usual, Reagle offered an intriguing look at its chosen show in something like its original form - that is, prior to its brilliant streamlining (by screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Robert Wise, among others) into the famous movie which is undeniably awesome in his white-bread perfection. The stage version, by way of contrast, is a little lumpy (songs aren't always where they are in the movie) and very slightly "racier" - there are knowing little in-jokes and wise-cracks here and there, and the Baroness and the Captain trade a few more barbed political quips.  Director Larry Sousa kept everything bustling (on Richard E. Schreiber's brightly colored, self-consciously artificial sets), and to my surprise, gave it all a slightly ironic sheen. Again, slightly ironic -  but nothing serious enough to undermine the show's calculated innocence; and the crowd ate it all up anyway.

The show's great strength was Sarah Pfisterer's Maria; Pfisterer is a Reagle stalwart, has the pipes for the part, and basically beamed her way through it - but there was also a powerful vocal performance from Jenny Lynn Stewart as the Mother Abbess, and all the kids were adorable, led by the talented Troy Costa, whom we remember well from his poised turn a year or two ago in Mame. I also got a kick out of Susan Scannell's drily conniving Countess, and Rick Sherburne's surprisingly heterosexual Uncle Max.  Down in the pit, the orchestra sounded polished and tight - the instrumental musicianship at Reagle has improved quite a bit of late, I'd say.  But  I'm afraid I have to report there was one real gap in the show - its putative star: as Captain Von Trapp, Patrick Cassidy had to coast on his good looks, because he's a stiff actor and a weak singer - indeed, he even wobbled a bit in "Do-Re-Mi."  Alas, at such moments, the tone of this generally enjoyable show suddenly became very ironic indeed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More on the Publick Theatre

Photo: Mark Simpson
I did promise I would try to find out more about the sudden "hiatus" announced this week by Boston's Publick Theatre (see post below), so I chatted with its (now former) artistic director, Diego Arciniegas, by phone this evening to see if he could shed any further light on the situation.

A short article in the Globe had revealed little more than the press release (which Arciniegas had written), even though the situation was quite unusual, to say the least: both the Publick's artistic and producing directors (Arciniegas and Susanne Nitter) were quitting simultaneously, and the company, while maintaining its residency at the Boston Center for the Arts, had no immediate plans to produce anything - indeed its Board intended to use this "hiatus" to explore "options to continue or retire the company."

This kind of thing doesn't often happen this way (in fact I've never heard of this sort of thing happening this way) - so I had a hunch there was more to the story than the principals were letting on. So I gave Arciniegas a call. But let me say up front that based on our discussion, my guess is he would do well under cross-examination, should he ever face court action for any reason. The press release version of the situation - that he and Nitter had decided simultaneously that it was time to move on (after ten years together on the job) - was his story, and it was clear throughout our conversation that he was sticking to it.

And it may, indeed, be all there is to his and Nitter's personal stories. But another question looms behind the Publick's hiatus - the question of its performance space in Christian Herter Park (above left).  For some time the Publick has been producing both a summer season in the park as well as an "indoor" season at the BCA; only last summer it gave over its parkland stage to Gabriel Kuttner and members of the Orfeo Group for a few low-tech shows that could be produced during daylight hours - because, it was explained, the stage's electrical system had been deemed unsafe for the requirements of lighting a full production.

The story back then was that the system was being renovated - but Arciniegas did confirm for me that the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation had not, in fact, completed the work that would have enabled the Publick to return to the space.  And the theatre's Board felt it was not feasible to pay for the repairs from its own coffers, as the Department was unwilling to enter into a long-term use agreement with them (surprisingly, according to Arciniegas, the Publick had to go through the process of renewing its agreement with the state every season).

Thus at least part of this story is that the Publick has lost its home base.  (And the Commonwealth has lost, at least for the time being, one of its few functioning outdoor theatres.)  When I asked Arciniegas if part of "redefining the theatre's mission" (which was mentioned in the press release) included ending its tradition of open-air Shakespeare and focusing exclusively on productions suitable for the BCA, he refused to comment.  But it seems more than possible that this particular artistic crossroads, in combination with the joint decision by Arciniegas and Nitter to resign, could be what led the Board to declare the current "hiatus."

The trouble is that "hiatuses" have a way of devolving into "closings," particularly when keeping the company going requires a double search process, and the "option" of closing down operations entirely has already been floated.  Let's hope that doesn't happen to the forty-year-old Publick.  And let's hope that one way or another, the Commonwealth eventually coughs up the dollars to return the stage at Christian Herter Park to its intended purpose.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Boston's Publick Theatre on hiatus

This just in:

Publick Theatre Boston announces the resignations of Artistic Director Diego Arciniegas and Producing Director Susanne Nitter. The theatre's board of directors has voted to put the company on hiatus while options to continue or retire the company are explored. While on hiatus, the Publick will maintain its status as a Resident Theater Company at the Boston Center for the Arts. Diego Arciniegas and Susanne Nitter will continue to collaborate with BCA programming independently and will continue to serve on the board of the Publick Theatre through this transition phase.

We'll try to find out more.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Real playwrights don't lip-synch


Why are these guys so ugly?  Oh, yeah - they can actually play their instruments!

I'm not sure why it should have happened, but recently, while I was watching a new play in which the lead characters were lip-synching to Toto's "Africa," (above) something inside me just snapped. And it was all I could do not to jump up in the theatre and shout, "STOP!!! NOW!!!!  REAL PLAYWRIGHTS DO NOT LIP-SYNCH!!!"

Luckily, I didn't do it (that would have been the subject for a little play unto itself!).  But I am wondering why, suddenly, I felt like heaving at this particular commonplace of the millennial theatre.

Perhaps it's that I've seen a lot of lip-synching on stage recently - and by "lip-synching," I mean not merely the literal, Milli-Vanilli kind, but the figurative one as well: you know, scenes in which two people fall in love, or patch things up, or simply form some sort of bond by singing along to the verse and chorus of a forgettable pop song that - whaddyaknow - they both secretly love!

Now, speaking personally, this has never happened to me.  Nor have I ever seen it happen to anyone else.  Except on stage.  Where it seems to happen all the time.

You know the drill (for it is indeed a drill): The Downer. The Failure of Communication. The Awkward Silence. Followed by: The Hesitant, Quavering Attempt at the First Line. Maybe Just the First Word or Two. Which is Followed by a Suspenseful Silence. Then: The Call and Response, When the Soulmate/Hook-Up/Divorced-or-Dying Mom Tentatively Replies, Like a Lonely Cockatoo in the Outback Calling for its Mate. Then! The Encouraged Intertwining of the Two Lonely Voices into One! And THEN -  THE CHORUS! THE HOOK!  (PRAY GOD, NOT THE BRIDGE!) THEN THEY CUDDLE/BEGIN TO DANCE AND  YES!!!  THE CRISIS IS OVER! AND EVERYONE IS COVERED IN EMOTIONAL CUM!!!

In a word - yuck.  But wait, it gets worse.  The basic impulse of theatrical lip-synching (which in formal terms, I suppose, represents that notorious "breaking into song" moment in the American musical run completely amok) has both metastasized and, in its choice of material, sadly declined.  Now supposedly "new" plays seem to routinely feature "scenes" in which people strut out and lip-synch to an empowering soundtrack with an "oh-snap!" attitude (or an ironic "oh-snap!" attitude).  And the soundtracks themselves - well, let's just say it's one thing to win back your love by lip-synching to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough;" it is another thing entirely to do it to Toto's "Africa."

Now, yes, I know - research shows that people who like the same songs are, indeed, often emotionally compatible.  Still - if your characters' deepest feelings are best summed up by "Annie's Song," then your characters represent approximately half the population of Cleveland; they aren't "characters;" they are a demographic.

And the bottom line, young playwrights, is that if you resort to lip-synching you haven't actually done your job.  You have instead grabbed a pre-fab emotional signpost and planted it in your play and pretended it is a scene.  Because the hard part is crafting you know, like dialogue that can get us to that moment of connection.  To be blunt - if your characters are lip-synching, then you are lip-synching too.  Which is fine for skits and summer camp shows (or even, perhaps, for the evening that prompted this diatribe, which consisted of plays written under a strict time limit).  But it's really not okay for paying audiences who aren't friends and family.  Or for crotchety critics who can remember when playwrights could write love scenes.  If you feel the love scene is now impossible - if your characters can text but not speak (and maybe you're right about that dismaying judgment!) - then write a scene about that.  Understand?  Because if you don't, I will begin simply posting Youtubes instead of reviews.  And there are a lot of really bad 80's videos out there, so that will not be pretty!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

All's Well that ends, well, okay

Parolles (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) gets his comeuppance in All's Well that Ends Well.

The critics have been singing the praises of Commonwealth Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, so I stopped by the Common last night to check it out - who knows, I thought to myself, maybe Steve Maler has finally come up with something.

Well, I didn't last through the whole thing, but I admit the reviewers are right on one count - this is probably the best I've seen Maler and company do. It's not great, but it's solid arena Shakespeare. And it's obvious why - for once Maler has by and large cast experienced stage veterans in the major roles rather than cable stars, and he has colored well within the lines of the interpretive consensus regarding All's Well. When you've got Karen MacDonald, Will LeBow, and Fred Sullivan, Jr. all on stage, trust me, the show will keep moving. And even the sound was a little better than usual.

Meanwhile Maler's direction, though inoffensive, is also rarely compelling. As usual, he has staged appropriate chunks of pageant to denote the play's themes, which move rather like placards across the stage. He knows from his reading, for instance, that All's Well is the most melancholic of the comedies, and shot through with images of death and decay. So he stages a funeral at the beginning, and usually lights the stage in blue. He doesn't actually know how to imbue the performances themselves with this interpretive slant; but he can communicate that he himself is aware of it. And, once this message has been received, most of our local critics put a "check!" in a little box on their mental scorecards.

Alas, that scorecard may not be as sophisticated as the critics themselves assume. I noted with amusement, for instance, that one local reviewer enthused that Larry Coen, "always a delight to watch, is doubly so when he's uttering that iambic pentameter." Now Coen is, indeed, often a delight to watch, but I don't think he has any of "that iambic pentameter" to say in All's Well; his character, Lavatch, speaks only in prose.

I'm aware, however, that such praise points up a special problem around critiquing Shakespeare on the Common: to be fair to Maler, he has to please that lady who can't tell blank verse from prose. (And his wealthy sponsors and donors are much the same - most of them have been 'educated' without really getting educated.) So it's worth noting that this production probably meets that populist standard - indeed it's chief virtue is simply that most of the cast makes this text intelligible. The language in All's Well may represent Shakespeare at his most obscure; it is expressly designed to suggest a decadent society transfixed by legalistic equivocation, and the Bard himself is intent on suggesting an equipoise of oppositions in almost every line.

The play opens, for instance, with a famous mouthful: "In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband." Shakespeare explicitly is equating birth and death here, but it's hard to parse that the very first time you hear it. Just btw, he closes with a similar equivalence, when the pregnant Helena is introduced with the line "One that's dead is quick" - in All's Well death itself is fecund. Probably the resonance of this strange, impacted theme sailed right over the heads of most of the folks on the Common - still, the actors made superficial sense of just about everything they said, however convoluted its expression - they spoke a bit slowly, but always clearly, and I felt that the audience was generally following the action, which is no small achievement.

But as an evocation of what's special about All's Well That Ends Well, you couldn't point to this version; it was solid, generic Shakespeare, but it had little of the haunting atmosphere All's Well should have, because there was little that was specific to the text about it. Part of the problem was that plays with subtle atmosphere don't lend themselves to arena stagings (imagine The Glass Menagerie in Fenway Park - that's roughly equivalent to trying to stage All's Well That Ends Well on the Common). But another central issue was that Kersti Bryan's competent Helena had little of the mystique that goes a long way toward excusing the plot's fairy-tale oddities (magic potions, bed tricks). Then again, nobody else was exactly right for his or her role, either; the great Karen MacDonald, for instance, is far too hearty for the frail Countess of Rossillion (who is generally seen as slowly failing over the course of the play), while Fred Sullivan, Jr., as the cowardly braggart Parolles, tended to bark his comic lines like a cross between Falstaff and Pistol, when what is essential about Parolles is his smallness. Meanwhile Larry Coen did manage to wring some laughs from Lavatch (Shakespeare's least funny clown), but failed to convey the jester's despairing temper (he's a hanger-on from the Countess's dead husband).  And even Will LeBow, though sonorous as ever, only brought the occasional interesting touch to the King of France.

Thus, I confess, my attention slowly drifted, and in the end I only made it about two thirds of the way through.  So perhaps the finale is fantastic - I just don't know (although I doubt it).  I confess I'm getting a bit bad that way - I bailed on Company One's 1001 last week, too.  But seriously, folks, I'm not getting any younger, and life, as they say, is short.  I certainly don't owe these people anything - in fact, I owe Company One and Steve Maler a bad turn or two.  Still, this time I have to admit that even if all doesn't end well with All's Well, it ends up pretty much okay.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Guess who else hates Diane Paulus?

The arts blog at the Times has printed a letter Stephen Sondheim (left) has sent to the editor regarding its fawning coverage of Diane Paulus's "updating" of Porgy and Bess. And boy, does our leading musical-theatre genius ever nail Harvard's leading theatrical poseur to the wall.  The text of the letter is below (go to the blog to read the 95 comments, almost all of which echo Sondheim's concerns). Of course I've been railing about Paulus's upcoming molestation of Porgy and Bess since I first heard about it, months ago (indeed, my comments regarding it played a part in my resignation from the IRNEs). But it's nice to have such high profile back-up! I'm not sure which organization Harvard can force Stephen Sondheim to resign from, but I'm sure some such effort is now afoot . . .

But without further ado, on to the letter itself:

The article by Mr. Healy about the coming revival of “Porgy and Bess” is dismaying on many levels. To begin with, the title of the show is now “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” I assume that’s in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart “Porgy and Bess” that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now”) or co-written with Ira Gershwin (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”). If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves. If it’s the producers’ idea, it’s just dumb. More dismaying is the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself.

Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.

What Ms. Paulus wants, and has ordered, are back stories for the characters. For example she (or, rather, Ms. Parks) is supplying Porgy with dialogue that will explain how he became crippled. She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings. It makes you speculate about what would happen if she ever got her hands on “Tosca” and ‘Don Giovanni.” How would we get to know them? Ms. Paulus would probably want to add an aria or two to explain how Tosca got to be a star, and she would certainly want some additional material about Don Giovanni’s unhappy childhood to explain what made him such an unconscionable lecher.

Then there is Ms. Paulus’s condescension toward the audience. She says, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.” I don’t know what she’s sorry about, but I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers. If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?

She is joined heartily in this sentiment by Ms. McDonald, who says that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Often? Meaning sometimes she’s full-blooded and other times not? She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in “Porgy and Bess” that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?

Among the ways in which Ms. Parks defends the excavation work is this: “I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so that they are not cardboard cutout characters” and goes on to say, “I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including the ending.”

It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him, and that she thinks he would have taken one of the most moving moments in musical theater history — Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!” — and thrown it out. Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.

Or perhaps in order to have her happy ending, she’ll have Bess turn around when she gets as far as Philadelphia and return to Catfish Row in time for the finale, thus saving Porgy the trouble of his heroic journey to New York. It will kill “I’m on My Way,” but who cares?

Ms. McDonald immediately dismisses any possible criticism by labeling anyone who might have objections to what Ms. Paulus and her colleagues are doing as “Gershwin purists” — clearly a group, all of whom think alike, and we all know what a “purist” is, don’t we? An inflexible, academic reactionary fuddy-duddy who lacks the imagination to see beyond the author’s intentions, who doesn’t recognize all “the holes and issues” that Ms. Paulus and Ms. McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks do. Never fear, though. They confidently claim that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.

I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting. Nor am I judging this production in advance, only the attitude of its creators toward the piece and the audience. Perhaps it will be wonderful. Certainly I can think of no better Porgy than Norm Lewis nor a better Bess than Audra McDonald, whose voice is one of the glories of the American theater. Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.

Which brings me back to my opening point. In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” nor even “The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.” Advertise it honestly as “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.” And the hell with the real one.

Pulling out all the comic stops on She Stoops

Kristine Nielsen and Jeremy Webb in She Stoops to Conquer.
I haven't caught much theatre in Boston of late, I'm sorry to say - I'm afraid other destinations have just proven too tempting. How could I pass up Nicky Martin's version of She Stoops to Conquer, for instance? Oliver Goldsmith's masterpiece is rarely done, and I don't think there's anything by Martin on the horizon at the Huntington this season (more's the pity). So I had to get up to Williamstown last weekend to catch its last performances.

And I was glad I did, even though this production wasn't quite top-drawer Martin. His distinctive signature - and he's one of the few directors we see locally who really has one - was still in evidence, though: that familiar mix of sophisticated, balanced ensemble, witty sympathy, and a sense of working within, and extending, a still-kicking tradition of literate theatre. By now Martin can also summon many of the best comic actors in the country, and so She Stoops was brimming with them: there were wonderfully funny turns here from Paxton Whitehead, Jon Patrick Walker, Jeremy Webb, Brooks Ashmanskas, and particularly Kristine Nielsen (at top, with Webb).

The trouble is that Martin has gotten very chummy - even indulgent - with the stars he now calls his "family." Thus he gets hilarious, but slightly superficial, work out of most of them, and he lets a few (Brooks Ashmanskas, this means you) get away with a level of schtick that can actually obscure character (Ashmanskas's familiar, fey zaniness is as lightning-quick as ever, but it's all wrong for the crude, if clever, Tony Lumpkin).

So on the one hand She Stoops to Conquer proved a splendid evening (complete with a grand set from David Korins); but on the other hand, you left feeling that you hadn't really seen She Stoops to Conquer; instead, you'd seen a clever gloss on it. Which is too bad, because Goldsmith's one stage classic (he died shortly after completing it) takes on a subject which vexes us much these days: class. And how it intersects with sex.

For Goldsmith's main gambit in She Stoops is to convert the usual comic contrivance of mistaken identity into a blunt meditation on status; his characters don't "recognize" each other in their comic encounters not because they're in drag or disguise but because they imagine they're of different social classes (this theme makes it all the way into Goldsmith's title, btw). Scene after scene deals with social climbing, the grasping after inheritance and legacy, and fashion as a denominator of status. But the sequences that modern audiences have the most trouble with are the ones in which we discover that the romantic hero, Marlow, though socially incapacitated around women of his own station, is something of a wolf among women with less power and prestige than himself.

These days, of course, we're quite uncomfortable with this basic truth of human (not just masculine) nature - even though many, if not most, of us behave much like Goldsmith's hero; we observe different moral and social standards with people above and below us in the food chain (and this tendency is probably increasing; hence, perhaps, our elaborate chagrin at its prevalence!). What's funniest about She Stoops to Conquer, however, is that not only are we offended the playwright should be so forthright about his characters, but also that he should be so forthright about us - for structuring his gags the way he does implies a straightforward understanding of how they'll be received by the audience. This play does, indeed, hold the mirror up to nature - only we're none too pleased by what we find there!

Worse still, Goldsmith is utterly forgiving of his characters' foibles - even when they edge beyond callous seduction toward actual larceny. (Another irony of the recent critical response to She Stoops is that most critics seem to miss that the play's most problematic villain is a woman - the grasping Mrs. Hardcastle.) The playwright does punish his wrongdoers - Marlow gets quite the comeuppance, in fact - but his fiancee blithely forgives him (as does Mrs. Hardcastle's husband) and does anyone really "learn" or change? Probably not; Goldsmith's too much of a realist for that. (It also may be worth mentioning that the Shakespearean comedy dealing most realistically with class - All's Well that Ends Well, currently on the Common - is also considered a "problem play.")

Mrs. Hardcastle to the rescue!
Martin's (welcome) attitude toward all this is a blithe and worldly one; still, he mostly glides over these issues without truly investigating them. Thus Goldsmith's deeper themes - about the compatibility of natural, if amoral, desire with social hierarchy - largely go missing. And as no one in this production is allowed real claws (or teeth), not much is ever really at stake. Yet oddly, given the generally breezy atmosphere, Martin doesn't give Marlow the usual excuse for his seductive moves (which is that he's an immature pup); thus Jon Patrick Walker's performance may be a brilliant piece of physical comedy - and I mean brilliant - but he's not quite as sympathetic as he might be. Still, Walker and co-star Jeremy Webb both made a case for themselves as classical actors as skilled as anyone I saw at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile Paxton Whitehead was, if anything, even better; with his double-bass voice and exquisitely perplexed timing, his turn as the good-hearted Mr. Hardcastle was, simply put, a joy. Still, his scenes were generally stolen - if charmingly - by Kristine Nielsen, whose ditzy Mrs. Hardcastle was well over the top (to match her wild frock, I suppose), and yet somehow always convincingly so; Nielsen fully inhabited even her wildest pratfalls. Alas, you couldn't say the same for Brooks Ashmanskas, though his preening hijinks were as funny as they always are - still, he missed both Tony Lumpkin's brutish smarts and his smothered, unhappy resentment of his mother (both of which are important to Goldsmith's thematic scheme). And alas, the other women in the cast may have been satisfactory, but weren't nearly in the same league as the men - in particular Mia Barron, the "she" who stoops to conquer, wasn't nearly mischievous enough to power her scenes; she essentially let the whole play be stolen away from her.  But then perhaps Nicky Martin simply forgot to tell her that she needed to kick things up a notch rather than stoop if she wanted to conquer this talented crew.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Royal treatment

Jonjo O'Neill as Orlando in As You Like It
I've been mulling my assessment of the Royal Shakespeare Company's visit to New York for about a week now - because the achievement and the experience were complex ones, and said quite a bit about Where We Are Now in terms of Shakespearean performance. When the announcements of this unprecedented residency appeared over a year ago - the RSC wasn't merely "touring," but really trying to bring itself to New York, stage and all - I remember the snorts of outrage that emanated from certain quarters of Manhattan. "Why," the response went, "you'd think great Shakespeare was unknown in the Big Apple!"

Well, it turned out that was, indeed, what a lot of people thought (including yours truly; I haven't bothered to attend a Shakespearean production in New York in something like a decade, and I've never seen a great one there that wasn't an import); even at prices higher than your average Broadway show (the best seats went for $250), pretty much the whole residency quickly sold out. What added insult to injury, however, was the news that the donors who had made the trip possible were also largely American.

So it's probably safe to say that many of Manhattan's critics were a bit conflicted about the visit - and unsurprisingly, some (like Michael Feingold and the reliably foolish David Cote) were almost amusingly pissy in their reviews.  Still, they had some genuine ammunition to hand: the RSC productions were at their best very good, but some were uneven, and one (King Lear) was a tedious mess.  And none, not even the highly praised As You Like It - which was often wonderful - was what you would call a triumph through-and-through.  It seemed clear to me that while the RSC had recovered most of the artistic ground it had lost during its financial travails around the millennium, it still wasn't operating at quite the heights I remembered from the days of Trevor Nunn.  And I'd have to point out that most years, the Stratford Festival in Ontario puts up at least one show that would edge out anything I saw in the Park Avenue Armory.  (Amusingly enough, even some British critics are beginning to admit the truth about Canadian theatre.)

What dogged the RSC in New York, I think, was a certain sense of ragged quirkiness - a few odd (or even outright bad) conceptual gambits banged along like tin cans behind even the best productions. As You Like It and Julius Caesar mostly cohered, but even they were beset by curious decisions here and there; meanwhile half of The Winter's Tale (the springtime half) was a welter of weirdness, and if King Lear hadn't been paced as a dirge, it might have sometimes read as a comedy of flat performances and bizarre directorial intent (Edgar wandered around dressed as Christ, for instance, and one scene would often "begin" before the previous one had ended).

Rosalind as a dazzling quilt of effects.
The RSC also seemed unable to make up its mind about exactly what its dominant performance style was going to be. In the old days, the divide between American and British Shakespeare could have been summed up in the following rough contrast: the Yanks concentrated on finding the character, while the Brits devoted themselves to speaking the text. That comparison, of course, was never the whole story, and at any rate the two styles moved together over time - certainly later British actors like "Ken and Em" could pull together both the internals and externals of a Shakespearean performance with ease. (And indeed, Branagh's films of the Bard in the 90's often unintentionally contrasted inept American stars with highly polished Brits.)

In the Park Avenue Armory, however, the RSC's actors seemed to hop between modes at will. Greg Hicks was a Method-tormented Leontes, but then a technically wily Caesar, and then a - well, I don't know what he was doing as Lear (he simply shouldn't have been doing it at all). Meanwhile Darrell D'Silva moved confidently through Lear, Winter's, and Caesar doing exactly what old-style movie stars used to do - that is, projecting facets of his own carefully crafted persona through three separate sets of lines. And then there was Katy Stephens's Rosalind - the truly luminous Stephens was the residency's newly-minted star, a dazzling stage presence with technique to burn - yet her Rosalind, dazzling as it may have been, seemed at times a patchwork of stage effects rather than a thought-through performance.  The result was that in a typical scene from, say, Julius Caesar, you'd find yourself watching three styles of acting (Caesar - Old School British; Antony - Old School Hollywood; Brutus - American Method) rubbing shoulders onstage.  This wasn't always a bad thing (and there's always a flexible kind of instability in every Shakespearean role) - but it was often a slightly odd thing, and added to the grab-bag of directorial interventions that afflicted some productions, it led to a pervasive sense of artistic disorganization.

The same incongruities surfaced in many of the design choices.  Only one production - Winter's Tale - really had a coherent, elegant look that matched the thrust of its direction (set in the Napoleonic era, this version focused on the text's concern with pre-Enlightenment values of justice).  The problem was that the design blew up in our faces half-way through (at left) in a conceptual gambit we never really understood; it seemed that Bohemia was made entirely of discarded manuscripts (perhaps by Voltaire and Locke?); indeed, the mummers at the sheep-shearing festival even WORE books, and little else - oh, except for large phalluses they brandished like clubs (??).

So in the end The Winter's Tale, like almost every other production, didn't really stick to a single "period," and even undermined its basically solid design idea by half-baked gambits half-way through.  Much the same was true of As You Like It, which made a case for some very tough-minded rustics in its romantic roundelay by laying on the brambles and shotguns (the original version in Britain even featured the skinning of rabbits onstage!).  But I'm afraid AYLI, too, went a little crazy as it went along (Sir Oliver Martext brandished a flaming crucifix, and Hymen sang like Elvis).  You got the impression that the RSC directors and designers just couldn't help themselves somehow; they couldn't get through the whole rehearsal process without eventually acting out in some way or other.  Did some knee-jerk impulse to scramble things in the name of "diversity" get the better of them?  Or did they want to purposefully give the impression of a scruffy, DIY attitude? Or did their Ritalin prescriptions simply run out?

I'm not sure - but there were still plenty of wonderful moments sprinkled throughout the festival (the wedding scene in AYLI, at right), as well as some truly penetrating directorial ideas, and several great performances - which are now embedded in my memory.  I left feeling that I'd been made to think seriously, yet again, about several texts I practically know by heart.  Which is not what your average theatregoer seeks from a Shakespeare production, I know, but which at this stage of the game is for me one of the most satisfying aspects of seeing a new performance.  I'll have more details about my favorite productions (I don't think I'll drag myself through Lear again) in a future post.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The RSC's new mainstage in Stratford-on-Avon.

My visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company festival down in New York last weekend inevitably reminded me that we don't really have a great stage for Shakespeare in Boston. Nor does New York, actually; the RSC brought their own stage with them - modeled on the thrust of their smaller Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon - and built it beneath the humongous vaults of the Park Avenue Armory.  The RSC has gone for the thrust in a big way, by the way - the recent renovation of their Stratford digs transformed their main stage into a Jeff Stryker-sized thrust, too (at top).

Of course just about everyone who has seen Shakespeare on a thrust stage agrees that it's the best way to do the Bard.  The connection between actor and audience is for some reason more immediate, and the relatively bare playing space is mysteriously sympathetic to Shakespeare's poetic scene-painting.  Of course not just any old thrust will do - the Loeb Theatre can be converted to a kind of thrust, for instance, but it's a dreadful one; it feels more like an absence than a presence. The black-box Central Square Theatre is usually configured as a thrust, and it would be much better for Shakespeare than the Loeb - only for some reason it seems the Bard is never done there.

The ideal Shakespearean thrust, however, should really be elevated from the floor of the theatre (so that the closest audience members are gazing up at the actors, as in the new Globe in London, at left).  On a purely technical level, this allows for the trap doors and escape hatches that the Bard sometimes demands, but there are atmospheric advantages to an elevated (and best of all, slightly raked) stage that are hard to describe.  I'm not sure why, but having a production "float" in the playing space seems appropriate to plays which are not really like "pictures" or "dreams" but rather metaphoric constructions that thoughtfully debate themselves as they proceed.  An elevated thrust makes a Shakespeare play feel a bit like a Rubik's cube - it's easier for us to rotate its content in our heads as we watch.  Plus an elevated stage subtly separates the players from the audience physically, while simultaneously drawing them closer together emotionally - a neat trick.

The RSC's stage in New York pulled off most of these effects beautifully - it was, I think, one of the best playing spaces in which I've ever encountered the Bard.  The thrust was quite long - imagine La Scala with the stage pushing better than halfway into the audience, and you've got the design of the Swan.  (Or imagine our own new Modern Theatre with a much longer thrust, and you've basically got the idea.)  That opera-house-like arrangement also helps the actors with their vocal projection, btw (plus the outer vaults of the Park Avenue Armory gave the RSC's voices a thrilling reverb, basically for free).  Meanwhile live music - a full score was played during both Julius Caesar and Winter's Tale - wafted down from a "pit" that was actually at the top of the theatre, in what would have been called the "Heavens" of the old Globe.  In many ways, this temporary theatre was a Shakespearean miracle.

There were disadvantages to the design, however.  The galleries surrounding the (quite small) audience on the first floor were inevitably lined with support columns (just like in Elizabethan days!).  These never occluded much of the action on the stage, but still - you found yourself looking around one of them to see who exactly was speaking more often than you might expect from a $100 seat.  A bigger problem lay in the rake of the galleries, which simply wasn't steep enough, given the relative narrowness of the space (this was a particular problem when the front row leaned forward to see actors who were almost directly beneath them).

So in the past few days I've tweaked my mental "ideal Shakespearean playing space" a bit.  Long thrusts are definitely a good thing (what can I say, the longer the better!). But support columns - well, as few as possible.  As for the rake of the seats - again, size counts.  The RSC's new stages probably still aren't ideal, but they're defniitely a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rich and strange

The female bird of prey in "Savage Beauty."
The hottest ticket in New York right now is to a museum show - "Savage Beauty," the Met's tribute to bad-boy gay couturier Alexander McQueen.  Only there actually aren't any tickets to this particular show; you get in with the general museum admission.  The catch is that you have to run something like a two-hour gauntlet in line: the queue for the show snakes through nearly the entire second floor of the museum.

Which gives you plenty of time to peruse some of your favorite pieces from the Met's stunning European collection (so the wait ain't all bad).  But last Saturday, I simply didn't have two and a half hours to spend at the museum - I had to be in my seat at the Park Avenue Armory in less than two hours, in fact, to catch the RSC's Julius Caesar.  What to do?  Well, like a lot of people, I joined the Met then and there - which means I paid more for "Savage Beauty" than any other art exhibit I've ever seen; still, at only $70, it seemed like a bargain (I've paid more for worse shows!); and I got to skip the queue.

Of course one reason why people are waiting two and a half hours for "Savage Beauty" is that right now its subject couldn't be hotter - not only did his fashion house (now led by Sarah Burton) whip up Kate's gorgeous bridal gown, but his notorious "jellyfish" ensemble (shoes, below) appeared in a Lady Gaga video - plus, he's dead at an early age (McQueen hanged himself, after slashing his wrists, a week after his mother died; an autopsy found numerous controlled substances in his blood stream).

But the major reason people are lining up to ogle McQueen's oeuvre is that the show is simply ripping.  Done up by the Met in a kind of high-tech haunted house, it drips with vulpine glamour and perverse panache, largely because McQueen was a bratty master of a certain kind of aesthetic contradiction - he tailors horror-movie extravagances with a severity so exquisite it almost makes you bite your lip.  Thus his costumes (or wearable sculptures? you can't call them clothes) all but vibrate with a hypnotic yin-yang intensity: they're both orgiastic and utterly controlled; violent, almost vicious - yet coolly poised at the same time. That sense of contradiction extends from their structure to their "content," too - McQueen's designs for women relentlessly style them as beautiful gorgons who draw their power from having been violated (not for nothing did he name a collection "Highland Rape"). And that ruthless thematic opposition transforms his pieces into bold-type statements in our ongoing pop-cultural sex arcade.

Take the beautifully beaded bodice below - and the loosely ruched scarlet stole above it; in formal terms this "traditional" ensemble tells you almost all you need to know about McQueen's superb technique: it combines cruelty (that tightly cinched waist) and what the French call volupté (look at the thwarted drape of the stole - McQueen became a master of drape - and the sumptuous spread of the silk skirt) in nearly-perfect proportion.  The intense colors convey both virginity and its loss (via the bleeding streams of rubies) - and the muscularity of those bunched scarlet shoulders tells you the wearer of this particular dress draws her power from that loss (which you guess was probably a forced one).  Combine this coded message with the piece's fanciful, royalist hauteur, and you have a ravishingly ironic comment on the historic pinnacle of the fashion hierarchy - and what it costs to get there.


Horns are so in this year!

The kernel of erotic pain embedded in that plush design constitutes, in a nutshell, the sexual politics of "Savage Beauty" - McQueen transmutes the experience of sexual coercion into a source of vengeful emotional (and political) power; over and over again, he designs outfits for the Furies. If this strikes you as - well, potent but none too original, then I admit you're absolutely right. Thematically, McQueen is completely derivative; there's nothing in his work that would have looked out of place in a Madonna concert circa 1993; sometimes it seems all too easy to sum him up as Camille Paglia with a Singer. And frankly, even many of his structural tropes (horns, tails) are transparently borrowed from H. R. Giger (below left), or even Disney (an early McQueen avatar, at right).

A corset courtesy of H.R. Giger.
But what makes McQueen startling (and compelling) is the way he extends a familiar conceptual complex into a truly dizzying array of styles and materials - and pushes everything to a new level of intensity.  He ransacks traditions from the kimono to the Scottish tartan for his collections, and there seems to have been nothing in the natural world which he could not tailor into a superbly realized article of clothing.  In "Savage Beauty," antelope horns rub shoulders with clamshells, fresh flowers, duck feathers, and even worms - and all yield stunning pieces (the macabre feather ensemble below was a particular favorite of mine).

It must also be said, however, that while McQueen may roam the world for inspiration, he usually ends up in the same place: his kaleidoscope of materials too often serves something like tunnel vision.  And that vision can be summed up in a single word: pain.   McQueen relentlessly returns to the same old tropes of bondage and domination when the time comes to actually sew his clothes. There are shoes and accessories here that could qualify as implements of torture, and the heads of the manikins are often sealed in grotesque leather masks - a trick which simultaneously "decapitates" the body and transforms the head into a kind of phallus (the"skin" of the dummies is also bruised, and I discovered that in the catalogue, the "manikins" were actually live models encased in acrylic - similar encasements and restraints are a popular B&D pastime).

Engulfed and transformed by nature.
What's a bit dismaying about all this is not so much that McQueen was misogynist (a common feminist complaint against him) but rather that he seems to have used women as pawns in a very dated kind of psychological theatre.  Indeed, in terms of gay sexual politics, the bitchy McQueen - who had a famous sideline in buttock-revealing pants called "bumsters" - seems to have been outspoken but pathetically retro, and maybe even self-hating.  Certainly he seems to have taken Freud's silly equation of gay sex with the death wish completely (and maybe even literally) to heart.  And to be honest, a kind of hidden, self-pitying creepiness born of this internal complex slowly surfaces in the show, despite its wild variety; "Savage Beauty" is certainly thrilling, but it's also a little suffocating.

McQueen did have one other, deeper theme, however: time's relentless onslaught, and its transmutation of the beautiful into something rich and strange (the ultimate, and universal, form of bondage).  There are some works here that are overwhelmingly poignant, in which women are engulfed and transformed by the natural world, or swallowed by the sea.   And every now and then, as in the famous "jellyfish shoes" (above) from a collection called Plato's Atlantis, you do feel McQueen breaking free of his personal demons into a world of pure fantasy and invention.  The resulting follies may be weird, but they're also sublime, and absolutely unforgettable.  Looking at them, you're reminded again what a loss his untimely death truly was.  And you're also reminded that whatever else you may say about him, the boy could sew.