Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Pales...In Comparison

Frank Rich, reviewing the original production of Burn This, hit the nail on the head when he mused that Lanford Wilson’s play, for all people have tried to make of it, is essentially a Romantic Comedy. I have now seen four productions of Burn This in my life and I am convinced it is not a great play, but rather an amusing night at the theatre. It just happens to have the good fortune of containing one of the best characters ever written for the stage.

It is interesting to see the play done in two different styles, and with two different sets of actors, so close together. Devanaugh’s production at the Piano Factory last spring sizzled due to the yoeman’s performance of Josh Rollins as Pale. The production also had the advantage of the intelligence and observation of the of the supporting cast, and a sensitive director. However, the total of that whole evening was less than the sum of its parts and it missed the mark because it is incredibly hard to see the play as the overall moody and turgid piece that Devanaugh presented.

The Huntington Production, playing at the BU Theatre right now is staged as a romantic comedy, with a much brighter loft space, and a simply fabulous Larry played by Nat DeWolf. I once heard Peter Kelley say, "You have to understand the difference between a set for La Boheme and set for Barefoot in the Park."

I was excited to see how this production would play out, but once again I ran into the problem of that brick wall of a first scene. Burn This, for those who are not familiar, starts with an overlong first scene which contains the worst kind of exposition, meaning the kind that reveals itself without any conflict. I have never had the experience of seeing this scene work in any sort of meaningful way, and anyone who knows the play secretly admits to a desire to skip right to the banging on the door which starts the second scene and heralds the arrival of Pale.

Once Pale, the hurricane force of a working class alpha male arrives everybody breathes a little easier, and Michael T. Weiss, of The Pretender fame, looks and struts the part. However, after seeing Josh Rollins tear it up at Devanaugh last year, I was a little disappointed in Weiss’s performance. Josh had a force and diction that perfectly caught the spirit of somebody whose mind works ten times too fast even when he is not on cocaine. He was fast, furious, dangerous and chose just the right moments in the speech patterns to punch up the comedy. Alas, Josh ‘s only drawback was not his fault. His only shortcoming was his age and his youthfulness.

But where Weiss is more physically suited, and a little more mischievous, he doesn’t get the manic down enough. And so the "Paleisms" that had the audience roaring with laughter at Devanaugh, only illicit mere giggles from the Huntington crowd .("I have spent half of my adult life looking for a parking space.") Weiss spits off the lines as if they are ingrained in Pale’s regular patter of conversation. Rollins, also a talented playwright and therefore understanding of the merge between character and dialogue , would toss them off as if Pale’s machinegun mind was making them up on the spot. Never quite sure what was to come out of his mouth, Rollins' Pale would create these gems, and the effect would be a transformation from a search for words to a truly witty, satirical comment, ("One half of my brain knows that and the other half…..drinks." )

It is not just the laughs that suffer in the Huntington Production though. This shortcoming extends further into Weiss's performance, making Pale's blindsides, ("So, are you f***ing him too.") seem forced.

Weiss definitely has the charm all over Josh’s more edgy performance though, and I think that may be an effect of the director’s move towards a lighter treatment of the work. It definiteley helps us to understand the romance end of things. Devanaugh went the heavy wounded birds route, which is a perfectly legitimate way to interpret it, although neither way can save the play.

Were it possible to merge Josh’s and Weiss’s performances, I believe we would have something truly blazing. But there I go again, talking all about Pale. And I don’t feel that bad because I know the play places the other characters/actors in difficult positions. I think the lead female role is one of the biggest traps for an actress ever laid by a serious dramatist since Willy Loman’s wife eulogized at the graveside. I mean Blanche Dubois at least had a few tricks up her sleeve for a wounded bird.

Without a Hurricane Pale, Nat DeWolfe’s Larry, walks away with the show in his back pocket. He is very funny, just as he was in Betty’s Summer Vacation.

There are more insidious problems inherent in the insistence of forcing Burn This into canonical repertory, but that is a story for another post.

No Man is an Island Entire of Himself...

The Globe reports on some of what has been bubbling beneath all the "good news" of theatre openings in Boston. Apparently the Merrimack Rep and The Wang are going through some tight times that seem to mirror much of the bad news that that has been appearing in the opening pages of American Theatre.

"We're undergoing a transition from being supported by a few key individuals to really broadening that support to the whole community and the institutions and the audience members," Towers said. The theater has 5,000 subscribers, 80 percent of whom live outside of Lowell.

The laugh out loud line for me, however, was in regards to the Wang Center....Hold on...let me cry for a second...

The Wang Center announced its own setback. It cancelled the planned run of an original production of Sam Shepard's "True West." The play, scheduled for the Shubert Theatre Jan. 25 through Feb. 6, would have been the first produced from
the "American Voices" reading series started by the Wang last year. Steve Maler, the Wang's vice president of artistic programming, had been set to direct.

True West in the Wang Center? Wait for the punchline though:

Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Wang, wasn't available for comment. He did release a statement that read, in part: "This soft economic climate does not support this type of risk, and although we heard from many audience members of their interest in the production, the ticket sales are not strong enough for us to move ahead at this time."

Soft Economic Climate? For whom? Is this the same Josiah Spaulding of the $536K salary, talking here?

I feel bad for the MRT and will probably send them a check, but the Wang is like the Death Star for the theatre arts here in Boston. If I had a dime for every suburbanite I have heard complain because they got stuck in the Mir Space Station they call the Balcony in that cavernous crater, I would be able to mount and produce my own Roadshow of Some Like It Hot.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Thomas Garvey Does It Again!

Garvey was the critic I brought up when he snuck in the "nice white liberal" line into his otherwise dead-on Joe Turner Review.

This time he put in a strange little comment once again into his Well of the Saints review. Apparently, by getting too much into the spirit of Synge's reputation of contempt for the poor Irish Folk, Garvey has this to say at the end of his review:

The Sugan, in effect, is at a crossroads. As other small companies make the jump to larger stages (such as SpeakEasy, which appeals to both straight and gay audiences), the Sugan seems stuck in its Gaelic ghetto, with no clear sense of how to extend its mission. Certainly the company has had small-scale triumphs, but if it can't stretch as far as Synge, how can it hope to reach the wider audience its material deserves?

"Gaelic ghetto"? The Sugan is not only providing a crucial mission to the Boston theatre scene, but they are also practicing sound business sense at the same time. The Sugan has a niche market sewed up nicely, and it is a little unfair to be comparing the Sugan's production to the Abbey's Playboy, (although I was not all that impressed with Abbey at all.)

Short Column space should not be an excuse for potshots without significant elaboration.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Highbrow Radicalism Succeeds in Hanging Synge with His Own Rope

Highbrow Radicalism Succeeds in Hanging Synge with His Own Rope

It was only a matter of time. The Highbrow radical fundamentalists have waited for almost one hundred years, and they have succeeded in warping Highbrow values into a surreptitious subversion of a form of theatre which they detest. The Abbey Production of Playboy of the Western World, concludes with Peg, under a dying shaft of light, proclaiming the last lines as if they were from an early O’Neill melodrama. More importantly though, she is saying the lines to a much thinner house than she had when she appeared two and half hours earlier. Poor Peg, you were never much for us to feel sorry for you. But, man, look what they have done to you, your town, and Christy.

Apparently, the audiences for the show's original production would cause an incredible disturbance to the point where the actors could do little more than just walk through their scenes. Initial reports said that the audience seemed to be rioting more about the language in the play rather than any political content. But it became apparent something larger was in play after sustained rioting at performances followed the company across the Atlantic to Boston and Philadelphia. Nationalistic movements had apparently seized on the play as an example of denigrating the good and pure heart of Ireland.

In the past year we have all learned at least a little something about radical factions and their movements. The arts are no different than the society at large, with lots of factions fighting for their piece of the pie. Highbrow criticism is not the problem, some of my best friends are highbrows…" not that there’s anything wrong with that." But like any movement, highbrow criticism goes off the rails with a strict ideology. Robert Brustein’s endless railing away at Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a perfect example. I am sure that one hundred years from now, at the moment Mr. Brustein’s visage is being unveiled on a plaque at 64 Brattle Street, one hundred productions of Death of Salesman will be going on in seventy different countries, including Iraq and Afgahnistan. (Although I shudder with the realization that the same will be true of Cats or Phantom Opera, so maybe that point might not mean anything.)

The Abbey Theatre’s production of Death of an Irish Playwright’s Work, is populated by talented actors who do their best with the minimalist and Serbanian Shakespearizing of the grit of this play. (Will Stackman is dead on in his quote, "Habitues of the ART will be aware of the forces at work…") Would the directors do this with the Beauty Queen of Leenane? Probably in a generation or so.

They deliver Synge’s introduction to his play, which is a poetic apology for the language of the people in the play, but utilizing the character of the Bellman. And I couldn’t help thinking that we may someday see Arthur Miller’s essay "Tragedy and the Common Man," delivered by the "Waiter." However, the conceptual team behind the show doesn’t realize that Synge is not apologizing for the people themselves. I don’t believe he ever felt he had too. The introduction gives the highbrow radicals the tools with which to pull the words from the breathing, hot-blooded characters’ mouths and wedge them into the mouths of stylistic caricatures, ( O’Neill would be clawing his eyes out for fear his father was back "parading" around in the Count of Monte Christo.) The production can’t even generate any heat from a choreographed horse race number in which Christy is supposed to gain his total manhood. The cast looks awkward and strangely non-sexual as they gyrate, bump hips and change places. Where is MTV when you need it?

I have always been a little leery of Synge’s "love" of these people, and I have suspected that he has taken a little liberty to poeticize their vernacular. But I’m afraid in trying to elevate the language to center stage, the Abbey’s Centennial Production falls into the trap the protesters long ago started setting for it. Indeed they may even be repeating the ultimate effect of those noisy protesters by closing it down for the audience and not allowing them to actually see what Synge is doing. This way, the play ends up with Stage Irishmen falling all over it, and though the wound on Christy’s father’s head is quite convincing, not a drop of blood can be smelled in the house. Why do they do this? Because the radical faction of Highbrow ideology sees no place for the method.

They despise realism for its complicity in the rise of our film culture and the destruction of the fine arts. They fear the heat on stage because they fear the power of emotion. The film culture IS complicit in this because its ability to bring the powers of light and sound to bear on us in order to jerk our tears has been abused constantly. However, Emotion, Intellect and will must function together and the method has brought a great bearing on the power of the emotion on stage.

Believe me, I hold no illusions that the radical factions of the Method can hijack art as well. The perfect examples are teary-eyed versions of The Glass Menagerie with all of the cast emoting all over the place and completely missing the contempt Tennessee Williams had for the people populating his own background. Or productions of Three Sisters in which all the sisters sit crying bitter tears at the end, hoping to wring them from the audiences eyes as well, but not for the right reasons.

Highbrow criticism, (not the radical factions,) understands the workings of a play like Playboy, and they will always be up for a good romp with the non-trustfunders and be able to come away with some idea of what is going on. It is the difference between a Highbrow who attends or watches a Sox game now and then , and one who reads George Will’s Men at Work as a substitute. However, when Highbrow Ideology becomes radicalized, they seek to stamp out what they feel is making the popular culture think themselves to be so smart. Preconceived notions travel in with the reviewer litmus tests are applied. The ultimate conspirators are the producers and directors who coopt the Highbrow Radical Manifesto, and instead of developing new works and authors they prod and poke existing works, ("Let’s see how the language stands on it’s own," "Let’s isolate the concept of jealousy in this text.") They do this all in the name of "preserving the Classics/Canon.)

Marlon Brando is dead. Isn’t that enough for them? His pitiful end, his sorrowful selling out, his inability to walk away from the money Hollywood provided was sad enough. However, they felt need to kick him the ass as he was lowered him into the ground. Before one week had gone by, articles appeared blaming Brando for the "unforgiveable" damage he had done to American acting.

Synge, in making his apology for the language gave them the rope, and in one hundred years time, they were able to hang him with it. What we have on stage now is the "Intellectual" Synge, and it doesn’t quite work that way. With emotion and raw power drained from the production, what is left leaves us scratching our heads, and creates quite a lot of rolling eyeballs at intermission.