Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.

As You Like It at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, Mass.)

Delighted with the Richard III we’d seen in 2010, we went back to Lenox, Massachusetts a week ago to see Shakespeare & Company’s As You Like It. This was Shakespeare without gimmicks — lively, well-acted, well-directed, and low-tech, done by people who weren’t afraid the play itself wouldn’t be enough to entertain an audience. We couldn’t have spent our afternoon better, and the rest of the smiling audience apparently thought as we did.

Orlando (Tony Roach) and his brother Oliver (Josh Aaron McCabe) come to blows in the opening scene. Faithful servant Adam (Malcolm Ingram) is shocked.

The story of As You Like It is fundamentally frivolous, and this company didn’t try to make the play carry more than it could. For many years we had trouble appreciating the Shakespeare comedies; the humor depends so much on now-obsolete turns of phrase. But in this show the gags and laugh lines seemed spontaneous and fresh.

Bare-chested Orlando (Tony Roach) prepares to vanquish the wrestler Charles (Kevin O'Donnell); Rosalind (Merritt Janson), spectating, is smitten.

This play is, we now realize, a love story. We don’t mean the infatuations that flare up like dry grass between Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, and the jester Touchstone and the country wench Audrey; we mean instead the solid, sisterly love betweeen Rosalind (Merritt Janson) and Celia (Kelley Curran). Their rapport was transparent; we had no difficulty believing that the affectionate Celia would leave her cushy life at the court to accompany her boy-crazy cousin into exile. Rosalind and Celia will always be best friends, but who would think that the romance between Rosalind and the over-serious, gullible Orlando (Tony Roach), writer of bad love verses, would survive much past their honeymoon?

These actors mined their lines for all they were worth. You may think you know the play, but did you realize that minutes after Rosalind met Orlando, she told Celia that she wanted to have his baby? (It’s ten lines into Act I, Scene 2.) You would if you’d seen this production, and a lot more. And the sight gags were superb. “Liberty” is, of course, one of the play’s great themes — both Rosalind and Jacques rhapsodize about it. But we were struck helpless when, at just the right moment, and for just a split second, Ms. Curran pantomimed the Statue of Liberty. For actresses playing Celia/Aliena, one of the big challenges must be figuring out what to do during the several long scenes in which the character is on-stage without any lines. In Act III, Scene 2, Ms. Curran solved the problem with a rapid-fire series of hilarious, dead-on pantomimes of Rosalind/Ganymede’s descriptions of how she was to cure Orlando of his love-madness.

Director Tony Simotes took especial care to connect the action and the dialogue, sometimes in unexpected ways. In Act II, Scene 3, for instance, Celia calls to Rosalind and Touchstone: “I pray you, bear with me; I cannot go no further.” Touchstone responds with one of the rare Elizabethan puns that still works after 400 years: “For my part, I had rather bear with you than bear you.” In this show, however, Touchstone has already come onto the stage bearing Celia on his back. Later, as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue comes to a close, Orlando helps the old, infirm Adam onto the stage just as the lines “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” are spoken.

Rare is the Shakespeare director who can resist the urge to try something “different” with a familiar play, and Mr. Simotes is apparently not such a director. The novelty in this show was the casting of the philosophic, monastic, misanthropic Jacques as a woman — and not just a woman, but a lesbian with an unrequited passion for Celia/Aliena, which she conveyed through longing glances and gestures. (Celia/Aliena rejected her overtures with an appreciative but it-can-never-be smile.) The gender of Jacques, who wore an androgynous black suit, confused the other characters as well as the audience; a bemused Touchstone (Jonathan Epstein) kept referring to Jacques as “him, or her, or whatever.”

Tod Randolph as Jacques

The main thing in favor of Ms. Randolph’s casting as Jacques was that it afforded an excellent actress an chance at a role otherwise reserved for men. We surely enjoyed her intelligent, witty delivery of some of the play’s best lines. (This was the second fine performance by a woman in a man’s role that we saw this summer; the other was Seana McKenna’s Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) It could also be said that conceiving Jacques as a lesbian in a society in which same-sex romances are beyond the pale helps to explain why Jacques is practically the only major character in As You Like It without a romantic partner. Or perhaps it could be said that the erotic attraction of Jacques to Celia served as a foil for the platonic affection between Rosalind and Celia.

On balance, though, this was a variation we could have done without — not having a woman play Jacques, but the conversion of Jacques into a lesbian. We are not of the school that insists that the literature of bygone years needs to be reinterpreted or “corrected” to reflect twenty-first century notions of sexuality.

Johnny Lee Davenport as Duke Senior in the Forest of Ardenne

We were very glad to see several actors we’d seen in Lenox the previous year in Richard III, including Ms. Randolph. Among the most striking feats in this show was Johnny Lee Davenport’s portrayal of both the bad Duke Frederick and his banished brother. In manner and speech, his two characters could hardly have been more contrasting; it hardly seemed possible that both the brutal Duke who banished his niece from court and the mellow, gracious Duke who welcomed Orlando to the Forest of Arden were played by the same actor. Mr. Davenport gained a spot on our list of favorite Shakespearean actors with his delivery of one of our favorite speeches in all Shakespeare: the good Duke’s ode to the pastoral life.

The star of this As You Like It was the winsome Merritt Janson, who played Rosalind as a hyper-active, quick-witted, playful bundle of sexual energy. But we are still looking for our ideal Rosalind. Ms. Janson hardly varied her tempo, and she delivered too many of her lines with the same inflections. We enjoyed Kelley Curran, as Celia/Aliena, very much, and not just for her physical comedy. And we surely hope to see Jonathan Epstein, a top-drawer veteran actor who played a superb Touchstone, in other Shakespeare roles.

Before the show, we (Emsworth and both the eldest and youngest of his three lovely, accomplished daughters) visited the former home of Shakespeare & Company at The Mount, a restored mansion that was designed and built by Edith Wharton in 1902. The Mount is only a mile or so from Shakespeare & Company’s current home at a private boys’ school. Its gardens are lovely. We couldn’t quite figure out where the plays were staged.

Richard III at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass.

John Douglas Thompson as Richard III

In a spirit of branching out, Emsworth and the Cordelia of his three daughters devoted a day to driving east to Lenox, Massachusetts to see a summer repertory company called Shakespeare and Company put on The Life and Death of King Richard III. This was a new theater destination for us; on the strength of this show, we feel strongly that these folks ought to be encouraged.

We saw Richard III in a relatively small, low-tech space (in the “Founders’ Theatre”) constructed mostly out of risers and black drapes, and sat in what might have been old church pews. But the acting, we thought, was top-notch — as good, in general, as we’ve come to expect in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford.

The Founders' Theatre, with the "Rose Footprint" theater (the tent) to the right, down a hill

Richard III is the story of misanthrope Richard, Duke of Gloucester (John Douglas Thompson), who hates the world because his brother Edward, not he, is King of England, and because his physical deformities leave him unappealing to women. In two early monologues (including the play’s famous opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . . “), Richard boasts about his schemes to have his brother George, Duke of Clarence, put to death, and to marry a woman whose husband and father he has killed.

John Douglas Thompson, as Richard III, shamelessly urges Leia Espericueta, as Lady Anne, Warwick's youngest daughter, to marry him

Before it’s over, and as Richard murders and manipulates his way onto the throne of England, he tallies more victims than Jason in Friday the 13th. But the shock value in this show came, not so much from the death toll, but from the sheer inventiveness of Richard’s perversity. The nervous laughter from the audience when Richard cheerfully told us

I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter.
What though I kill’d her husband and her father?

was just the beginning. Jaws dropped when Richard gave orders to have his brother Clarence and then his two nephews murdered. There were gasps at Richard’s cynical pretext for sending Hastings to the chopping block, and more when he kicked Hastings’s head (in a sack) around the stage.

Elizabeth Ingram as the ghostly Margaret and Nigel Gore as the Duke of Buckingham

In fact, two of the most shocking moments in the play (as we feel sure the playwright intended) didn’t even involve bloodshed and murder. We held our breath when (in Act IV, scene 2) the newly crowned Richard coolly snubbed Buckingham, his most faithful ally (Nigel Gore), when Buckingham reminded him that he’d been promised the earldom of Hereford. (“I am not in the giving vein to-day.”) And when Richard concluded his audacious request that Elizabeth (Tod Randolph) persuade her young daughter to become his next wife (Act IV, scene 4) by giving Elizabeth a sensual kiss, we felt it as a blow.

From reading the play – till now we hadn’t seen Richard III on stage – we didn’t expect much humor, if any, in the show. But director Jonathan Croy made a highly effective comic episode (Act I, scene 4) out of the efforts of Richard’s bungling hired assassins to screw up their courage to murder Clarence. He did the same with an exhilarating Baynard’s Castle scene (Act III, scene 7) in which Josh Aaron McCabe, as Catesby, an exuberant Johnny Lee Davenport, as the Lord Mayor, and Nigel Gore, as Buckingham, brilliantly manipulated a mob (and the audience in the theater, appalled but laughing) into acclaiming Richard as their new king. The scene seemed to us the reverse image of Antony’s celebrated speech to the Romans in Julius Caesar. It was great theater.

This Richard III came dangerously close to camp – but that’s what pulled the parts of this play together, we thought. Three weeks earlier, in Stratford, Ontario (see this post), we had seen another early Shakespeare play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, presented (and very effectively) more as scenes from a variety show — an entertainment — than as a narrative play. In the same way, this production of Richard III, was more a pageant of scenes from Richard’s outrageous career – melodramatic confrontations, comic episodes, a lament, non-naturalistic speeches to the audience, a battle scene — than a unified narrative.  (Is there any other Shakespeare play in which so many characters go out of their way to give their names as part of their first speeches?)  We felt that the approach brought us close to what a London audience in 1590 might have experienced.

Leia Espericueta, Zoë Laiz, and Tod Randolph as Lady Anne, Young Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth

We’ve read that the roles of the women in Richard III are not truly playable. That wasn’t the case here; the dazzling repartee between Richard and Anne (Leia Espericueta) in Act I, scene 2, the blistering curses of Margaret (Elizabeth Ingram) in Act I, scene 3, and the verbal fireworks between Richard and Elizabeth (Tod Randolph) in Act IV, scene 4 were all highlights.

All told, this was a lively, tightly directed show with a strong cast. Rocco Sisto, as Clarence, gave a mesmerizing rendition of Clarence’s celebrated dream about his drowning and adventures in Hades. On the printed page the various dukes and nobleman seem undifferentiated, but in this show they all had strongly individual personalities; we especially enjoyed Nigel Gore as Buckingham. The choice of John Douglas Thompson as Richard III was a case of non-traditional casting, not because Mr. Thompson is a black man, a matter of no consequence, but because, with his tall figure, agility, and imposing physical presence, he did not look at all like the deformed, undersized cripple that the playwright made Richard out to be. It was a small point to sacrifice, as Mr. Thompson was an extraordinarily convincing Richard.

Shakespeare and Company operates on the campus of the Lenox School, a private prep school situated out in the country in the Berkshires

Shakespeare and Company seems to have been around for 33 years — some friends who used to live in Stockbridge told us they saw Shakespeare from this group in an outdoor theater in the late 1970s — but the group is still a long ways from reaching the critical mass of established repertory companies like the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It sells only about 50,000 tickets each year, compared to about 500,000 at Stratford. Shows like The Winter’s Tale, which was also on the bill this year, have 25 performances compared to the 100 or more that the Shaw Festival might have for a play like Major Barbara.

Shakespeare and Company also seems to have ambitions that aren’t close to fruition. One of its three “theaters,” the “Rose Footprint Theatre,” is just a tent in a field that’s apparently used for shows for kids. The season publication says it’s the spot where they intend (when they get the money) to build an historically accurate reproduction of the Rose Playhouse, the London theater where Richard III may have been first performed.

We must complain about the the program for this show, in which the cast of characters confusingly had the actors on the left and the characters on the right. Needless to say, this makes it hard to sneak a glance, in the middle of the performance, to see who’s playing what.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has come back to Broadway (a review)

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The caption for this Jacob Lawrence painting ("The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 3) reads, "In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry." It's at the Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.).

August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911, deals with the separation of black people in America from their cultural roots. Most of the characters in this play had come to Pittsburgh from homes in the south — part of the “great migration” that was the subject of Jacob Lawrence’s remarkable series of paintings (above and below). August Wilson described it this way in his introduction to the play:

From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope . . . .

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The caption for this Jacob Lawrence painting ("The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 45) reads, "They arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North, in large numbers."

But when we saw this play last weekend at the Belasco Theatre (West 44th Street, Broadway), we realized that at least one of the actresses was even less connected to the cultural milieu of August Wilson than the characters in the play were to their ancestors’ African heritage.

The telling moment came in the play’s final minutes, as Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), meeting his wife Martha after ten years apart, becomes overwhelmed with bitter emotion and pulls a knife. Trying to bring him to his senses, Martha (Danai Gurira) urges him to “look to Jesus. Even if you done fell away from the church you can be saved again.”

Martha begins to quote the familiar words of the twenty-third Psalm. After a minute, the words of Scripture strike a chord with the distraught Herald Loomis:

MARTHA: “Even though I walk through the shadow of death — ”

LOOMIS: That’s just where I be walking!

MARTHA: “I shall fear no evil. For thou art with me. Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me.”

LOOMIS: You can’t tell me nothing about no valleys. I done been all across the valleys . . . .

That’s how Martha’s line was spoken last Friday night: “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me.”

When he wrote this passage, August Wilson must have felt that he was making it easy for any actress playing Martha by giving her lines she would already know. Wilson himself surely learned Psalm 23 by heart at an early age; he must often have heard the verses spoken in church. The phrase “Thy rod and thy staff” (like other passages from the King James Bible) would have been part of Wilson’s cultural vocabulary, along with the tradition of gospel preaching also echoed in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

danai-gurira

Danai Gurira

But it’s clear that Danai Gurira wasn’t familiar with Psalm 23 before she took on the part of Martha Pentecost — otherwise, she never would have transposed “staff” and “rod”. For her, this was just another line she had to learn. We couldn’t help wondering if this actress even knew the theological implications of the name “Pentecost” that her character had taken. (With some research, Emsworth has ascertained that Ms. Gurira is about 30 years old, a playwright as well as an actress, and a native of Zimbabwe. We infer that she never attended a Christian mission school in that horribly troubled country.)

It is, of course, unfair to this exceptionally well-acted production for Emsworth to dwell at such length on a minor blunder by one actress. (It’s especially unfair because we saw a preview performance.) In fact, the casting by director Bartlett Sher is one of the many strengths of this show. Each of the nine adult characters in the play is portrayed vividly and in high definition.

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Chad L. Coleman

The best part of seeing an August Wilson play is not necessarily the storyline, but the pleasure of getting to know the characters and watching them interact. But of the several Wilson plays we’ve seen on stage, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has, we think, the most compelling plot and subplots. Former deacon Herald Loomis (Chad C. Coleman) arrives at Seth Holly’s boarding house shorn of his faith and looking for a wife from whom he was cruelly torn ten years earlier. Long-time boarder Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson) wants to find a shiny man that he met in a vision. Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake) wants to recover a husband who left her. 

And what of the various performances? We especially enjoyed Ernie Hudson’s performance as Seth Holly. the grumpy owner of the Pittsburgh boarding house where all the play’s action takes place. We think perhaps Holly was the character August Wilson himself liked the most: the only character born in the North, a devoted husband, a trick worker in a machine tool and die shop, the financially astute proprietor of two businesses on the side, a skilled metalworker, an aspiring entrepeneur, a small-scale vegetable gardener, and a man impatient with the superstitions and unsettled ways of his boarders from the south. We also appreciated Latanya Richardson Jackson as Seth’s tolerant, warm-hearted wife Bertha.

playbillBut the finest performance in the show is given by Roger Robinson as the Hollys’ boarder Bynum Walker.  He’s a “hoodoo” man who makes potions with roots and pigeon blood, and he has the ability to “bind” people together (with the qualification that “You can’t bind what don’t cling”!). The scene in the play that Emsworth remembers most vividly is not one that was acted on stage, but instead a scene described by Bynum, the dramatic story of his magical encounter with the “shiny man” who showed him how to find his “song,” the “Binding Song.”

It’s a banner year for theater-going when you get to see not one, but two August Wilson plays. See Emsworth’s review of a remarkably good production of Fences in Rochester in June. Here’s the link.

The Cherry Orchard at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn

We might have thought August: Osage County was a better play if we hadn’t seen this fine production of The Cherry Orchard in Brooklyn the night before. (Emsworth vents about the popular but incoherent Osage County play in this post.)

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Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusack, Paul Jesson, and Rebecca Hall. Hall's drab costumes only accentuated her appeal.

Of course, no one needs Emsworth to tell him that The Cherry Orchard is a masterpiece. But it’s easier to make a Chekhov play into a dreary yawner than to bring it to life.  We can report that this production by director Sam Mendes and the Bridge Project is a great success.

We saw it on a whim, ordering our tickets by cellphone as we were driving down to New York City on a Friday afternoon. (We were agreeably shocked to find ourselves talking to a actual box-office employee of the theater, not an anonymous Ticketmaster flunky.) What we Rochesterians didn’t realize until after we’d bought our tickets was that the BAM Harvey Theater is in Brooklyn, not Manhattan (To our shame, we did not know that “BAM” stands for the Brooklyn Academy of Music or that it has been an oasis for classical theater for many years.). We took a different set of expressways, dodged the enormous Brooklyn potholes, and arrived in time for a decidedly undistinguished meal at a kitschy, self-important diner called “Junior’s” that we spotted a couple of blocks from the theater.

The theater itself was something to see.  It must have been a fine old vaudeville playhouse, with its Roman columns, staircases, and a grand balcony, back in the day (1904) when it used to be the Majestic Theater. The place was apparently crumbling and abandoned when (as we learned) one Harvey Lichtenstein bought it twenty years ago and renovated it — after a fashion. It looks as if they stripped away a lot of plaster, down to the pipes and wires, then ran out of money and simply sprayed shellac over everything. We make no value judgments.

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Sinéad Cusack and Simon Russell Beale

The Cherry Orchard is set in Imperial Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. It is the story of a proud and formerly wealthy Russian land-owning family that can’t come to grips with changing times.  Here’s the plot: When Ranavskaya (Sinéad Cusack) and her daughter Anya return home from several years in Paris, they face a crisis; their grand estate is about to be sold at a mortgage foreclosure auction.  Ranavskaya’s neighbor Lopakhin (Simon Russell Beale), a prosperous merchant from a peasant family, urges her to save the estate by cutting down its large but unproductive cherry orchard (of which the family is immensely proud) and converting the land into summer villas for the nouveau riche from the cities.

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Sinead Cusack's Ranevskaya is prone to melodrama. Standing: Richard Easton as the aged Firs.

But Ranavskaya refuses to face the crisis, or even to talk about it.  Her inability to engage with Lopakhin, who genuinely wants to help her, is just one of many instances in this play in which the characters simply fail to listen to one another.

Ranavskaya throws money around as if the family were still rich. And she still treats her “free” servants like serfs, like the non-people of Gogol’s Dead Souls, even though serfdom was abolished in 1861, several decades before the scenes in The Cherry Orchard. Her elderly footman, Firs (Richard Easton), pines for the days before emancipation, when people knew their places in society.

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Ethan Hawke as Profimov resembled Emsworth in his own student days

Ranavskaya’s stepdaughter Varya (Rebecca Hall) and Ranavskaya’s brother Gaev (Paul Jesson) realize that a marriage between Varya and the now-wealthy Lopakhin would solve the family’s financial woes. Varya is willing, but Lopakhin, acutely conscious of their differences in social rank, and perhaps still harboring a crush on Ranavskaya, has never brought himself to speak to her. Instead, a useless romance has sprung up between Anya and the former family tutor Trofimov (Ethan Hawke), a fervent radical socialist and perpetual student.

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Rebecca Hall as Vicky in the recent Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona

There are more than enough “names” in this show. The ravishing Rebecca Hall had the title role in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona last year (we thought she was excellent, although Penelope Cruz got the Oscar nomination). Ethan Hawke had lots of screen time in last year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And we remember vividly Sinéad Cusack’s supporting role as Dr. Delia Surridge in V is for Vendetta.

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Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

But this show is not just something movie stars decided to do between films; this is serious acting by serious, first-rate actors.

We learned from the program that the Bridge Project is a sort of exchange program for actors, a joint undertaking of the Old Vic, in London, where Kevin Spacey is artistic director, and the BAM Harvey Theater, where Sam Mendes is in charge. (Talk about the movies, though! — Mendes was the director for American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, and the recent Revolutionary Road.)

Because of this collaboration, some of the actors (like Simon Russell Beale and Sinéad Cusack) are British members of the Old Vic company; others (like Ethan Hawke and Dakin Matthews) are American. Our only cavil was with the accents. The Brits used upper-class British accents; Ethan Hawke used a working-class American accent; and Selina Cadell, as the French governess Charlotta, spoke in what seemed to be a parody of a French-Russian accent. We thought at one point that the accents might have been intended to match the social status of the characters, but can’t say for sure.

Although we (understandably) couldn’t keep our eyes off Rebecca Hall, we loved Simon Russell Beale as Lopakhin, ambivalent about his upward mobility. He’s one of the best actors we’ve ever seen. And we were especially delighted with Richard Easton as the addled old servant Firs.  These classical actors are worth going out of one’s way for.

The script of this play was a “version” (apparently not a “translation”) of Chekhov’s play by the contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard.  When we got home, we pulled the Constance Garnett translation off our shelves and read it through; we don’t think Stoppard did anything radical.  In the older translations like Garnett’s, the language is so stilted that the essence of Chekhov is lost — or at least so it seems to us. On stage, Stoppard’s “version” was natural-sounding and went a long ways toward closing the cultural gap between our time and Chekhov’s Russia.

This show rates with the 2003 production of The Three Sisters at the Shaw Festival, directed by Jackie Maxwell, as the best Chekhov we’ve ever experienced. We see that this same outstanding ensemble of actors is now also performing Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale in repertory at the Bam Harvey Theater. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be back to New York City before its run is over.

August: Osage County at the Music Box Theater in NYC (a review)

august-osage-co-poster(January 30, 2009)  In New York City last weekend, Emsworth yielded to curiosity and went to see the heavily hyped August: Osage County, which has been on Broadway for over a year and which won the 2008 Tony. 

The Music Box Theater was packed, and, frankly, it’s been a while since we’ve been part of an audience that was so into a play.  But we left with just one thought on our minds: 

This was really the best play on Broadway in 2008?  The Tony?  The Pulitzer too?  Oh, my!

Don’t believe the critics. August: Osage County is what you’d get if you took six months of a daytime soap, boiled it down to three hours, and added laugh lines.

tracy-letts

Tracy Letts

The soap formula calls for new dramatic revelations — infidelities, betrayals, crimes of passion — every two or three weeks.  That’s August: Osage County: fresh dark secrets about the Weston family, only they bubble up about every fifteen or twenty minutes. Playwright Tracy Letts exhausted his quota of coincidences and unlikely plot turns by the first intermission.

We learn in the first ten minutes of the play that the folksy Bev Weston is an alcoholic and that his bitchy wife Violet pops pills. But that’s just the beginning.

In short order we learn that their eldest daughter Barbara is separated from her husband, who’s shacking up with one of his students at a university (and that the separation is a secret from her family); that their middle daughter Ivy is secretly sleeping with her first cousin; and that their youngest daughter Karen has just gotten engaged to a shady businessman (narcotics?), who’s trying to get into the pants of Barbara’s 14-year-old daughter Jean.

Sound like six months’ worth of All My Children? That’s what I thought, too.

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Estelle Parsons

This play panders shamelessly to trends in pop psychology, the stuff you’d see on Oprah and read about in Cosmopolitan. America loves “truth-telling” — so Letts writes a family-dinner-from-hell scene in which a hopped-up Violet (Estelle Parsons) tells her daughters and their husbands just what she thinks of them! America can’t get enough of The Vagina Monologues — so we get pajama-clad sisters joking about their mother’s privates.  American mothers live in fear that dirty old men will ply their young daughters with pot and try to seduce them — so Letts puts that in the play too!  His audience, viscerally involved, hisses right on cue.

Shock overload? No such thing! Tracy Letts also throws in subplots about suicide and accidental incest. He tries to hit as many of the primal fears of American women that he can. Make no mistake: this is a chick play.

Then he adds a crowning touch: a pure-heared young Cheyenne woman with perfect posture and absolute composure (Samantha Ross). She presides over the play as a sort of spirit presence (and as a conscience for the Westons), reminding us of the moral superiority of America’s indigenous peoples. Letts’s random use of hot-button items from contemporary pop culture make August: Osage County a hopeless mish-mash of a play.

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Back in the day: Estelle Parsons with Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde

This may be the same production that won the Tony, but it’s not the same cast. All the actors from the original Steppenwolf production that came to Broadway from Chicago have long since moved on.

Still, there are some very good performances, especially from Estelle Parsons, who plays her “stoned” scenes to perfection.  She also gets to shriek and carry on much as she did when she won a supporting actress Oscar forty years ago in Bonnie and Clyde. We especially liked Molly Regan as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae; this actress is a veteran of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and has serious acting chops. So does Amy Warren as Violet’s neurotic youngest daughter Karen; Ms. Warren has some marvelous moments with body language, using her arms and legs.

On the other hand, Madeleine Martin seems to feel that the best way to put across a surly 14-year-old girl (Violet’s granddaughter Jean) is to distort her voice and swallow her words.  She was painful to listen to. And the way Bill Fordham delivered his lines (he plays Barbara’s philandering husband Frank) was little better than amateurish.

This is theater for people who like TV. We were entertained — we admit it.  But we were not impressed.

Speed-the-Plow at the Barrymore Theater (NYC) — a review

Mamet

(November 2, 2008) We left the Barrymore Theater last Friday evening with a renewed appreciation for David Mamet, but with growing doubts about straight theater on Broadway.

Speed-the-Plow (written in 1988) is one of two Mamet plays currently on Broadway. The other is American Buffalo (written in 1976); each play deals with betrayal of a business partner and a deal that goes bad. Speed-the-Plow is a compact and extremely fast-paced play, three acts without an intermission. Even though our show started ten minutes late (at 8:10 p.m.), its three actors were taking their bows before 9:30 p.m. In fact, Speed-the-Plow is short enough that the producers should have considered making it the first part of a double bill with Mamet’s one-act play Bobby Gould in Hell, based on one of the three characters in Speed-the-Plow. We would have liked to have seen it.

Jeremy Piven

David Mamet plays generally leave you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, so we knew the high spirits in the first act were too good to be true. The first character we meet, Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven; his picture here is from a movie role he had several years ago), is a Hollywood producer whose job is to identify film projects that will make money, regardless of artistic merit or social value. He’s doing well enough to have authority to green-light film projects with budgets under $10 million, but not well enough, apparently, to have a decent office.

Raul Esparza

Into his office roars Bobby’s old friend Charlie Fox (Raul Esperanza), a lower-ranking producer at the same studio, who has, in a manner of speaking, just won the lottery. One of Hollywood’s biggest action stars has just read a script Charlie gave him (for a cliche of a prison buddy movie), loved it, and told Charlie he wants to do it with Charlie and his studio. Testosterone washes all over the stage as the two plan to present Charlie’s coup to the boss and fantasize about how rich they’re going to be.

Elisabeth Moss

Trouble enters when Bobby calls in his temporary secretary, Karen (Elisabeth Moss) to get them coffee and a lunch reservation. Bobby and Charlie brag to her about how they find projects like the prison film that will put butts in the seats, and how they give the thumbs-down to movie proposals based on artsy books like one that his boss, the head of the studio, has just agreed to give a “courtesy read.”

The book, “The Bridge,” is in fact a pretentious, oqaque, philosophical novel about radiation and the end of the world. (We know it’s unreadable because Charlie and Bobby read passages from time to time; one thinks of Thomas Pynchon.) Bobby and his boss both know that it has no potential as a movie. Looking for a pretext to get Karen into bed, Bobby passes off the job of reading this ghastly abomination to Karen and asks her to bring him a review at his apartment that evening. He fails to anticipate (as the audience does) that she will fall under the book’s spell and use her sexual power to persuade him to recommend “The Bridge” to the studio head instead of the sure-hit prison buddy movie.

I suppose Speed-the-Plow is hard to act. I suppose any David Mamet play is hard to act. Mamet doesn’t expect actors in his plays to take turns speaking their lines; in Mamet-speak, characters are constantly interrupting each other, speaking in sentence fragments, and talking at the same time — much like real-life conversation.

Unfortunately these actors, especially Jeremy Piven and Elisabeth Moss, don’t quite get it down. They can’t seem to get past the notion that they shouldn’t trample on one other’s lines, even though that’s just what Mamet intended them to do. The result is dialogue that’s ever so slightly choppy.

We blame it on television. The program indicates that Jeremy Piven’s resume is mostly in television and the movies, even though his pedigree is in stage acting (here’s a good piece on Piven in the N.Y. Times); currently, it seems, he’s in an HBO show called Entourage (we’d never heard of it), while Elisabeth Moss is apparently in another cable TV show called Mad Men (we hadn’t heard of it, either). Not surprisingly, Piven and Moss act like television actors, going for cheap laughs, yelling their lines instead of projecting them, content to be johnny-one-notes, playing to the camera instead of the theater audience. (See this post on why Emsworth doesn’t watch television.) Sadly, the audience at our show seemed to like them that way.

Not so with Raul Esparza, a fine actor who shows considerable acting range even within the confines of so manic a character as Charlie Fox. This was the second time we’ve seen Esparza, who played Lenny in a revival of Harold Pinter’s nightmarish The Homecoming that we saw last winter; we liked him even better this time. We were grateful for this chance; we don’t get to Broadway often enough to be able to see its best actors in multiple roles.

Fortunately, the play’s strong enough to compensate for the shortcomings of this cast. For as long as Emsworth can remember, people have pretended to despise Hollywood’s commercialism and its unwillingness to make “meaningful” movies. None of this hypocrisy for Mamet! Who else would have the nerve to write a play in which a character is presented with a choice between a commercial hit and a “art” film — and in which the moral choice is the commercial hit? Or in which the character who champions the “art film” turns out to be the real “whore”? There’s more substance in Spiderman than in a dozen critically praised independent “art” films that we’ve long since forgotten.

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Piven and Esparza

In Speed-the-Play, Bobby and Charlie spend a good of time calling themselves “whores” for commercial Hollywood, reflecting the ambivalence of American society toward capitalism.  We don’t think David Mamet himself is so ambivalent; the published edition of the play begins with a quotation from Thackeray’s novel Pendennis: “Which is the most reasonable, and does his duty best: he who stands aloof from the struggle of life, calmly contemplating it, or he who descends to the ground, and takes his part in the contest?” Bobby and Charlie weren’t giving themselves enough credit.

Twice during the play Jeremy Piven, as Bobby Gould, turned to the audience to advise us that “there are no mavericks” — a topical reference to the Republican national ticket and Tuesday’s election day. He got his laugh each time (it wasn’t especially funny), but at the expense of the play’s momentum.

What does “Speed-the-Plow” refer to? There’s an explanation from David Mamet himself in the Wikipedia entry for the play.

UPDATE (January 15, 2009): By the unlikeliest of chances (we never, ever watch morning TV), our television came on this morning just as Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America was announcing her next guest, which happened to be Jeremy Piven.  Piven had apparently agreed to let Sawyer cross-examine him about his deserting this production of Speed the Plow several weeks ago, with a couple of months to go in the run. Piven’s people had claimed he was suffering from mercury poisoning from a constant diet of fish and was unable to go on with the show; to our surprise, his departure got publicity not only in the New York tabloids but also in the national press.

Sawyer pointed out to Piven (a) that several medical experts she had consulted found it unlikely that he would suffer any noticeable impairments from the levels of mercury reported, (b) that it was widely rumored that Piven’s real problem was late-night partying, and (c) that none of the show’s producers or investors believed Piven’s story for a minute.

But Piven stuck to his guns and said that his “illness” had frustrated a lifelong dream to perform Mamet on Broadway. Like a well-coached politician charged with scandal, he told Sawyer that he’d been frustrated that he hadn’t been able to get his story across till now. He warned the audience earnestly about the dangers of eating fish. Uh-huh.

William H. Macy, an actor we greatly admire, has now taken Piven’s place in the cast. Wish we’d seen him instead of Piven.

The Tempest at the Classic Stage Company (NYC) — a review

A business trip to New York City this week gave Emsworth a chance to see Mandy Patinkin in a production of The Tempest at the the Classic Stage Company, a small, no-frills theater in the East Village. 

It seems that my twenty-ish children already know Patinkin from his role as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, a movie that a better father would perhaps have watched with them.  (The picture to the right shows him in that movie with Andre the Giant and Wallace Shawn.) But personally, I hadn’t seen Patinkin at all, not in Evita or Sunday in the Park with George, not as a concert singer, and certainly not on television.  No matter.  For all his work in musical theater, Patinkin is a remarkably good Shakespearean actor, and it was a privilege to see him as Prospero. 

This show (directed by Brian Kulick) gets off to a bit of a slow start with a meandering and not especially terrifying shipwreck scene.  But it picks up as soon as Patinkin and Elisabeth Waterston (as Miranda) take the stage.  Their first scene together, of course, consists mostly of a long-overdue and somewhat long-winded explanation by Prospero of how he and Miranda came to be marooned on their island.  Patinkin kept our attention throughout this well-directed scene and throughout the play.

I couldn’t help, however unfairly, comparing this Tempest to the one we saw at the Stratford Festival in 2005 with the late William Hutt as Prospero (see picture below).  This week we saw a low-tech, low-budget production in a barely adequate performance space, while the Stratford show (in a first-class theater many times larger) went first class on all aspects of costuming and special effects.  And Patinkin’s supporting cast, taken as a whole, simply doesn’t compare to the repertory company at the Stratford.  Nor could any other Prospero measure up to William Hutt.

But Patinkin shares with Hutt a musical, modulated speaking voice, excellent timing (and the use of expressive pauses), and a talent for making Shakespeare’s language immediately intelligible.  Patinkin, who is 55, is of course a far more lively Prospero than Hutt was at the age of 85 — and he sings! 

Nyambi Nyambi is a particularly sympathetic Caliban with some of the play’s best lines; I enjoyed his performance very much. The energetic drunken scenes with Stefano (Steven Rattazzi), Trinculo (Tony Torn), and Caliban are nicely done. Angel Desai is a spunky (if surprisingly pudgy) Ariel with an unrequited longing for her master. I realized during this show that both Miranda and Ariel ask the same question: “Do you love me?” — Miranda of Ferdinand, and Ariel of Prospero.

I avoided the reviews before seeing this new Tempest, but now I’ve seen The New Yorker‘s snide comment that “Patinkin doesn’t seem to connect with the other actors or with the text.” 

Not connected with the text! He understood and reveled in each noble line! As to his connection “with the other actors,” The New Yorker seems to be knocking Patinkin for playing the character that Shakespeare created.  Antonio wouldn’t have been able to usurp Prospero’s dukedom in the first place if Prospero hadn’t been an introvert who detached himself from the citizens of Milan to devote himself to his books. 

Moreover, Prospero’s relationship to every character except Miranda, from the “shipwrecked” noblemen of Naples and Milan to the spirit Ariel and the Caliban, who are both his slaves — is one of control and manipulation. In several scenes, Prospero merely stands at the edge of the action, invisible to the other characters though making comments to the audience, watching to see how his schemes unfold. How surprising should it be that any Prospero should seem “unconnected” from other characters? Except Miranda: we felt from the start that Patinkin’s Prospero and his Miranda had a warm and affectionate relationship.