29 April 2012

'Three Sisters'

Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg brought its highly-praised production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters to the Brooklyn Academy of Music beginning 18 April and Diana, with whom I’m sharing this season’s BAM subscription, and I caught the second performance on Thursday, 19 April, at the Harvey Theater. (Three Sisters ran at BAM through 28 April. MDT last appeared at BAM with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in 2010, a production I didn’t see.) The production, which was performed in Russian with English supertitles, premiered in St. Petersburg in October 2010.

Chekhov completed Three Sisters in 1900, when he was suffering from tuberculosis and living at a house he’d built in Yalta, a fashionable resort city on the Black Sea. The play premièred on 31 January 1901 at the Moscow Art Theater, for whom the dramatist had written it, under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. Chekhov wrote the role of Masha for MAT actress Olga Knipper, whom the playwright married on 25 May. (Tuzenbach was played by Vsevolod Meyerhold and Natasha by Stanislavsky’s wife, Maria Lilina. A week before the opening, the director himself decided to appear as Vershinin.) The MAT’s co-founder and dramaturg, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, said the play was “the best production of the Art Theatre.” The MAT’s Three Sisters débuted in New York in 1923 as part of a six-play repertory that also included Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch, The Lower Depths, The Cherry Orchard, The Lady from the Provinces, and The Brothers Karamazoff, helping to introduce stage Realism and the Stanislavsky acting style to the U.S.

This Chekhovian tale, under the direction of MDT artistic director Lev Dodin (who’s made a few small adjustments to the text apparently), follows the Prozorov sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina, and their brother, Andrey, who were forced to leave Moscow for life in a provincial town, following the death of their father a year earlier. The family confronts the gulch between yearnings and reality as the play examines the emotional effects of the family’s loss of status and wealth while they come to terms with the changes in turn-of-the-century society. (One irrelevant thought skittered across my mind at one point: the play is set around 1901 and what neither the characters nor Chekhov could know is that in a little more than a dozen years, World War I will completely disrupt this life, followed by the Bolshevist revolution which will end it altogether.) A saga about the vital importance of staying true to yourself while struggling with the burden of everyday life unfolds as Chekhov eloquently provides insight into resignation, longing, and love.

Maly Drama Theatre began in 1944 in wartime Leningrad (now renamed St. Petersburg), performing in relative obscurity until the mid-1970s, when current artistic director Dodin and other well-known artists joined the company. (Maly in Russian simply means ‘small,’ usually in contrast to some other local theater named bolshoi, or ‘big.’) MDT grew to become an internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning theater famous for challenging theatrical boundaries with imaginative productions by an accomplished ensemble of actors. One of the world's most respected theaters today, MDT was invited to join the Union of European Theatres and is one of only three current troupes to be granted the status of "Theatre of Europe." The company’s comprised of a 56-member ensemble, most of whom were students of Dodin’s at the St. Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Arts. Dodin believes that acting must be a "way of life" and his training methods have made MDT a leader in the development of theater; he often rehearses his actors well into the run of a production. MDT tours extensively throughout Europe, Australia, the Americas, and Southeast Asia with a number of productions, including a 20-year run of Brothers and Sisters by Fyodor Abramov, which won the USSR State Prize and Italy’s Ubu Prize; Alexander Galin’s Stars in the Morning Sky, which garnered Britain's Laurence Olivier Award; and Gaudeamus, inspired by Sergei Kaledin's story "Construction Battalion," which received the French Theatre and Music Critics' Award.

The Maly Drama Theatre's production of Uncle Vanya received two of Russia's prestigious Golden Mask awards for Best Director (Dodin) and Best Actor (Sergey Kuryshev, who plays Baron Tuzenbach in Three Sisters) and the Italian Critics’ Prize for Best Foreign Production. Hailed by Peter Brook as "the finest ensemble in Europe," MDT has found worldwide critical acclaim for this production of Three Sisters, which was nominated for a Golden Mask, Russia’s premier performing arts award, as best drama and Dodin was nominated as best director. (Two MDT actors, Elizaveta Boyarskaya—who didn’t appear at BAM—and Alexander Zavyalov were also nominated for their portrayals of Irina and Chebutikin. The production didn’t win the awards, handed out in Moscow on 16 April.)

Dodin began at the Maly in 1975 after an early career in which he started as a child actor and continued in the 1960s as a freelance director in the Soviet Union and Europe. While still doing guest directing around the continent, Dodin became MDT’s artistic director in 1982. Among his many individual awards and honors are the Olivier Award, the Triumph Russian National Independent Award, St. Petersburg’s Golden Spotlight for Best Director, the Stanislavski Foundation Prize for Excellent Teaching, and a Russian Presidential Award for Excellent Service.

Dodin’s Three Sisters isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s ultimately an astonishing accomplishment. MDT has achieved the reputation as one of the best ensembles in Europe and it’s well-earned. In this production, the rewards were not always easy to wait for, however. Starting at the top, though, let me say that the acting was an absolutely magnificent example of Stanislavskian Realism. (I can’t single out individual performances in this Three Sisters as it was one of the truest ensemble productions I’ve seen in a long time. They all get equal praise and equal responsibility for the show.) Many of the cast were Dodin’s former students at the St. Petersburg Academy and they clearly learned the lessons on building characters and establishing circumstances and relationships well. What seemed clear to me was that the actors really understood the play and the characters and were truly immersed in that world. As Alexis Soloski wrote in the Village Voice, “[T]he characterizations feel remarkably full.” If they were doing that technically somehow, rather than viscerally, then it fooled me. Of course, they've been living with this life and these people for two years now, and since Dodin continues to rehearse his shows even after they open, the company may still be actively exploring. But the final word really has to be that this cast is just a group of superb actors. (As former students of Dodin, they’re not unlike the original MAT company, who were also students of their director.)

I’ll get to the pacing in more detail in a bit, but one of the most salient aspects of this ensemble’s acting style was that it was unrushed. They weren’t slow and they didn’t add in arbitrary pauses; there was no studio-inspired “line-beat-reaction-line” performing. But the actors took the kind of time that would have been natural for a group of people at a country house where they’ve gotten used to having nothing to do. As a spectator used to more animated stage fare (or, worse, TV fare), I had to get accustomed to this more stately and subdued pace, and while it skirted enervating at times, especially early when Dodin was establishing this atmosphere, it became an inherent element of the Prozorov world. (The performance ran three hours and ten minutes with one intermission, and this pace was surely in large part the cause of the extended running time.)

As realistic as the acting was, the directing wasn’t wholly of that style. In fact, there were strong aspects of Expressionism in Dodin’s staging, as he isolated actors or groups of actors and made them remain in place, often with little movement, for minutes at a time, even whole scenes. Even when there were several characters together, they looked out front as if searching the horizon for some sign of life coming to them. This heightened the times when two actors actually connected to one another, making the brief connection seem all that much more significant and momentarily stronger. It wasn’t a casual occurrence, the way other people might just glance at their companions without registering much contact or conveying much meaning in their look. The same was true of touches in Dodin’s staging—and the two passionate kisses he added to Chekhov’s performance text were almost blistering when they occurred in act two. This expressionistic atmosphere was enhanced by the subdued palette employed by Alexander Borovsky in his sets and costumes and the crepuscular lighting designed by Damir Ismagilov.

The sense of isolation was extended to the whole production. There’s no evidence that the village is anywhere near the house or that there are other dwellings in sight. The actors sometimes entered or exited though the auditorium, a long distance for a cross, enhancing the sense that there’s a great distance between the Prozorov house and the rest of the world. When the fire comes in act two, we see nothing, not even a glow in the distance. It’s as if the Prozorov house is on an island cut off from even the sliver of society the backwater town might offer. It’s a kind of anti-Brigadoon.

There was also considerable comedy in Dodin’s untraditional interpretation of Chekhov’s study of desperation and loneliness. (Indeed, the playwright didn’t call his plays “dramas”; he labeled them “comedies,” though they are seldom staged that way.) The director added a pillow fight, a gag beard, a huge shlyapa (fur hat), tuneless and annoying whistling, and a chorus or two of “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay.” The humor just seemed to heighten the bleakness of this Chekhovian world, in the same way as the yellow light from inside the house made the grayness outside seem more oppressive.

The set design may have been the most expressionistic element in the production, or at least the most visibly manifested. Borovsky conceived a bleak façade of the Prozorov house as the dominant component of the setting, with a flat, undecorated, and unplanted terrace before it, with a four-foot-high flight of steps leading down to the ground level. (Many of the scenes are staged on those steps, boxing in the actors for an even greater sense of separation.) The façade reached from the stage floor to the proscenium arch, completely blocking the stage opening upstage of it, but there were windows cut out on two stories and a cut-out doorway under a peaked, wooden canopy. (The doorway seemed narrow and low, as if it were intentionally hard to get in or out of the house.) In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood described the openings as suggestive of “hollowed-out eyes,” but another image came to me: a painting by Edward Hopper, with the mystery and vague ominousness they convey when he depicts someone through a window, often lonely and isolated even when in the company of someone else. Hopper has more color in his paintings than Borovsky used in the Three Sisters set, but the feeling of glimpsing through the windows and not really knowing what’s going on in there was the same for me. Borovsky even also used bright indoor lighting, seen behind the dun-colored façade through the open window holes, to contrast with the dimmer outdoors the way Hopper does in his canvases. (I thought specifically of Nighthawks, Hopper’s 1942 portrayal of three patrons and a waiter in a cafeteria at what seems to be early evening from the shadows outside, assembled near one another but all still alone and separate. Back in 2007, I saw a Hopper exhibit in Washington on which I wrote a brief report and prophetically, I observed that “there's a strange kind of theatricality in Hopper's paintings—not action or drama, but his interiors especially look like stage sets, a kind of set designer's rendering.” Maybe Borovsky thinks so, too.)

The house façade was remarkable for another attribute: it moved. Like one of those shrinking rooms in some horror movies, the flat front of the house moved downstage a few feet on several occasions, notably at the start of the second act, not only increasing its ominous presence, this large, hollow (there’s no interior) prison for the Prozorovs and their circle, but decreasing the small plot of free space down front. If the environment of Dodin and Borovsky’s Three Sisters was claustrophobic when it began, it got even more so until the house receded again near the end of the play. It wasn’t as if the scene was welcoming to start with—the house was drab and dark with those hollow windows, almost like a derelict, and the front terrace is barren and characterless as if there wasn’t even plant life here—but the looming mud-brown façade and the shrinking open space increased the feeling of desolation. It’s no wonder that the Prozorov women yearn so obsessively for life in Moscow, even if it’s a chimerical vision. (We know that, even if they manage to get there, Moscow isn’t such a glittering place when we meet Colonel Vershinin. He’s a Muscovite—and as dull as dishwater.)

It took me several days of thinking about the set design to devise any kind of explanation. I didn’t find it immediately comprehensible while I was watching Three Sisters and, because it was such a prominent part of the production (David Sheward in Back Stage said, “Alexander Borovsky's suggestive set becomes a character itself”), I kept wondering what Dodin and Borovsky’s point was. My attempt here may not be complete or even accurate, but this is what I came up with. Another difficulty (which is not to say either ‘mistake’ or ‘problem,’ as I hope to explain) was the long first scene of the play during which the characters all talk incessantly about not having anything to occupy them, neither work nor social and cultural pursuits. (As if to echo our presidential campaign, one character states, “I have never worked a day in my life!”) As Chekhov’s dialogue keeps reminding us, these people are idle (even the army officers, which struck me as especially noteworthy), and Dodin gave the actors nothing to do, either. (It occurs to me that no one in the play even smoked, an activity actors used to love because there’s so much a character can do with a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. A Russian papirosa is especially loaded with potential business.) Except for going into or coming out of the house, they practically didn’t move about the blasted heath of a front yard.

Diana said she found this boring, though the performance was redeemed later for her, and suggested that Dodin should have had the characters play cards. It’s an unproductive activity, she pointed out, and we know that later Andrey gets into debt from gambling. Playing cards would have given the actors something to do on stage even though it didn’t actually accomplish anything. I agreed that the director’s choice not to have any stage business for the cast during the scene was a chancy decision because it was boring and could alienate the audience irretrievably. It seemed to me, however, that providing any activity like card-playing would subvert the theatrical and dramatic point of enforced inactivity—that the people in this play, as bored as they were, couldn’t even invent something to do. Dodin elected to brave the possibility of losing the audience—this is what I meant by the rewards of the production being sometimes hard to wait for—by choosing not to let the characters do anything at all. If that was a mistake—and I’m not sure, given the evidence of the rest of the production, that it was (a friend to whom I described this dilemma said Dodin “has courage”)—I don’t know what a good solution would be. I’m sure, however, that having the characters play cards is not correct, even though I couldn’t get Diana to understand that in the context of staging, unproductive activity is not equivalent to inactivity. In acting, doing something, even if it accomplishes nothing in the end, isn’t the same as doing nothing.

(By the way, I must note here that the problem wasn’t with the actors. Possibly the hardest thing an actor has to do on stage is to do nothing—actors love business, hence the attraction to smoking—but this company did idleness excellently. They were consistently and thoroughly in the moment, as Stanislavskians say, even if they were just sitting leaning against the walls of the staircase. If there was a problem, it was Dodin’s to solve, not the actors’.)

Now, I said I’d touch on the pacing of the production, so let me get to that. I tried to explain earlier that the actors took their time the way actual people might in the play’s circumstances—an unrelieved lassitude. The three hours of the play was filled with life (even if it was inactive); there were no Pinteresque pauses or long reactions, no attenuated scenes but, in contrast, say, to the Cheek by Jowl performances I’ve seen, no actors speeded up their work to move things along for theatrical reasons (see my report on ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, published on ROT on 4 April). I wouldn’t call it slow as much as deliberate or measured. It wasn’t a manifestation of thoughtfulness or reflection, but simply a slow life, oppressive perhaps but also just unhurried. It’s the country, after all, not fast-paced Moscow. I said also that it took a few minutes to get accustomed to this performance pace, exacerbated as it was by that inactive first scene, but once my rhythm synched up with the actors’, it was intriguing both theatrically (I got to see what the actors were doing because I had time to watch them) and dramatically. It was also stunning to see these actors hold onto their characters, business, inner lives, and all even if they had to maintain them through the longer scenes. If an actor gets to move on from one moment to the next quickly, without dwelling on one for long, there’s less chance of making a mistake, losing sight of something, and if she slips, it’s over fast and she’s on to the next moment. Theater usually moves faster than real life; Three Sisters didn’t—or didn’t seem to. An actor has to be more grounded, more anchored, I think, to move at the speed of life—especially turn-of-the-century provincial life. Like that opening scene, this decision was a risk, too. I think it paid off, and from the audience’s reaction—considerable laughter, especially in act one; a standing ovation; and several extra curtain calls—I wasn’t alone. (The performances were nearly sold out before BAM sent out the announcement—our seats were considered obstructed, though they were really just far away at the rear of the mezzanine—and no one left at intermission as far as I could see. I even checked a bit because I’d hoped we could move down a few rows.)

The press seems to have been just as impressed as I was. Isherwood in the Times called the production “compassionate” and “richly acted” and characterized Dodin’s staging as “a surprisingly fluid mixture of delicacy and bold, almost stylized expressionism.” He described the performances as “emotionally vibrant” and “precisely detailed.” Sheward called Dodin’s “searing production” of Chekhov’s classic “a dreamlike version” in Back Stage. This Three Sisters, said Voice reviewer Soloski, is “a mischievous and lively production,” and in New York magazine, Scott Brown explained, “The company restores an urgent, gut-level anguish to Chekhov’s terrarium of provincial discontent, delusion, and paralysis . . . .” In contrast, Elisabeth Vincentelli called the MDT Three Sisters “stark, slow and grim,” and warned, “It’s a respectable approach, but it requires patience.”

Vincentelli concluded her notice by saying, “This opaque, demanding production isn’t for beginners,” and I’d agree to a certain extent. She means this a pretty stiff warning, but I’d suggest only that MDT’s Three Sisters is a sophisticated enough theater experience that it takes not only open-mindedness and patience, but a palate sufficiently practiced to look beyond flash and, these days, stage effects, and see something we seldom get to see much now: the love and glory of the art of theater itself. This cast isn’t in the entertainment business—they’re in the art business. I don’t mean that as a snobbish panegyric for high theater art, I mean it as a reminder that we sometimes lose sight of where this all started. There’s not a thing wrong with good entertainment. I like The Boyfriend and Once Upon a Mattress. But we get so used to that kind of fare (not to mention the influence on our understanding of theater that comes from television’s 23- or 46-minute attention spans doled out in ten-minute chunks. Dodin and MDT don’t work in that medium. According to Barbara Chai in a Wall Street Journal interview with the director, “[O]ften in theater, you see a mutual tranquility going on” and, Chai says, Dodin believes that “the essence of theater is an inborn ‘intranquility.’” Audiences at Three Sisters need to be prepared to feel insecure—and to relish it for much of the three hours. For that reason, it’s not for beginners. On the other hand, it may be that a true beginner, someone who hasn’t become inured to the 21st-century theater world yet, would experience this Three Sisters differently from one of us old-timers—like Ilya in Never on Sunday, whose ingrained naïveté informed her experience of Greek tragedy. Maybe we need to get back to that, at least a little.

[I don’t normally do this, but because I didn’t single out actors to appraise on my report of MDT’s Three Sisters, I’m going append the cast list here, just to acknowledge this excellent company.

Alexander Bykovsky (Andrey Prozorov), Ekaterina Kleopina (Natasha), Irina Tychinina (Olga), Elena Kalinina (Masha), Ekaterina Tarasova (Irina), Sergey Vlasov (Feodor Kulygin), Igor Chernevich (Alexander Vershinin), Sergey Kuryshev (Nicolai Tuzenbach), Alexander Koshkarev (Vassili Soleny), Alexander Zavyalov (Ivan Chebutikin), Danila Shevchenko (Alexey Fedotik), Stanislav Nikolsky (Vladimir Rode), Sergey Kozyrev (Ferapont), Natalia Akimova (Anfisa), Elena Solomonova (Maid) and Anatoly Kolibyanov (Soldier).]

24 April 2012

World Theatre Day 2012

[The statement below is from the website of ITI, the International Theatre Institute. ITI, an NGO in formal associate relations with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was officially inaugurated during the meeting of its first World Congress in Prague in 1948, organized on the initiative of UNESCO and a group of international theater experts. ITI’s charter objectives are: To promote international exchange of knowledge and practice in the domain of the performing arts; to stimulate creation and increase cooperation among theater people; to increase public awareness of the need to take artistic creation into consideration in the domain of Development; to deepen mutual understanding and contribute to the consolidation of peace and friendship between peoples; to join in the defence of the ideals and aims of UNESCO; and to combat all forms of racism or social and political discrimination. To further its goals and especially to spread the idea of theater as a bridge-builder for peace and mutual understanding, in 1961 the ITI created World Theatre Day, celebrated annually on 27 March. Each year the Executive Council of the ITI selects a message author and circulates the international address all over the world. The message is translated into more than 20 languages.]

World Theatre Day was created in 1961 by the International Theatre Institute (ITI). It is celebrated annually on the 27th March by ITI Centers and the international theatre community. Various national and international theatre events are organized to mark this occasion. One of the most important of these is the circulation of the World Theatre Day International Message through which at the invitation of ITI, a figure of world stature shares his or her reflections on the theme of Theatre and a Culture of Peace. The first World Theatre Day International Message was written by Jean Cocteau (France) in 1962.

It was first in Helsinki, and then in Vienna at the 9th World Congress of the ITI in June 1961 that President Arvi Kivimaa proposed on behalf of the Finnish Centre of the International Theatre Institute that a World Theatre Day be instituted. The proposal, backed by the Scandinavian centers, was carried with acclamation. Ever since, each year on the 27th March (date of the opening of the 1962 "Theatre of Nations" season in Paris), World Theatre Day has been celebrated in many and varied ways by ITI National Centers of which there are now almost 100 throughout the world.

Each year a figure outstanding in theatre or a person outstanding in heart and spirit from another field, is invited to share his or her reflections on theatre and international harmony. What is known as the International Message is translated into more than 20 languages, read for tens of thousands of spectators before performances in theatres throughout the world and printed in hundreds of daily newspapers. Colleagues in the audio-visual field lend a fraternal hand, more than a hundred radio and television stations transmitting the Message to listeners in all corners of the five continents.

* * * *

World Theatre Day is an opportunity to celebrate Theatre in all its myriad forms. Theatre is a source of entertainment and inspiration and has the ability to unify the many diverse cultures and peoples that exist throughout the world. But theatre is more than that and also provides opportunities to educate and inform.

Theatre is performed throughout the world and not always in a traditional theatre setting. Performances can occur in a small village in Africa, next to a mountain in Armenia, on a tiny island in the Pacific. All it needs is a space and an audience. Theatre has the ability to make us smile, to make us cry, but should also make us think and reflect.

Theatre comes about through team work. Actors are the people who are seen, but there is an amazing set of people who are not seen. They are equally as important as the actors and their differing and specialist skills make it possible for a production to take place. They too must share in any triumphs and successes that may hopefully occur.

March 27 is always the official World Theatre Day. In many ways every day should be considered a theatre day, as we have a responsibility to continue the tradition to entertain, to educate and to enlighten our audiences, without whom we couldn’t exist.

* * * *

[On March 22, 2012, John Malkovich delivered his international message at UNESCO in Paris at a gala event that included readings of play excerpts with Malkovich and other theatre artists.]

I'm honored to have been asked by the International Theatre Institute ITI at UNESCO to give this greeting commemorating the 50th anniversary of World Theatre Day. I will address my brief remarks to my fellow theatre workers, peers and comrades.

May your work be compelling and original. May it be profound, touching, contemplative, and unique. May it help us to reflect on the question of what it means to be human, and may that reflection be blessed with heart, sincerity, candor, and grace. May you overcome adversity, censorship, poverty and nihilism, as many of you will most certainly be obliged to do. May you be blessed with the talent and rigor to teach us about the beating of the human heart in all its complexity, and the humility and curiosity to make it your life's work. And may the best of you – for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments – succeed in framing that most basic of questions, "how do we live?" Godspeed.

—John Malkovich

[John Malkovich is a founding member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and has worked on 33 productions with the company since 1976. In 1983 he won an Obie for his performance in Sam Shepard’s True West. The following year, he appeared with Dustin Hoffman in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, which earned him an Emmy in 1985 when it was made into a television film. He rose to fame in cinema with his interpretation of Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons directed by Stephen Frears from Christopher Hampton’s stage script, alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. After this role he acted in more than 70 movies internationally, receiving Academy Award nominations for Places in the Heart and In the Line of Fire and playing a version of himself in the films Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. He has periodically returned to Chicago to act and direct, and was recently seen in the international tour of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. This production traveled to nearly 20 countries and received its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2011. He also directed his third theater production in Paris, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, at the Théâtre de l'Atelier following the success of Hysteria (2002) and The Good Canary (2007) for which he was awarded the Molière Award for best staging.]

19 April 2012

'Being Shakespeare'

Shakespeare "shows us what it is to be human," writes Oxford University English don Jonathan Bate. "But what was it like being Shakespeare? That is the question," Bate tells us, "we ask in our play." Bate's talking about his Shakespearean compilation, Being Shakespeare, which was in performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 4 through 14 April with ace Brit actor Simon Callow (Mozart in Amadeus, Faust in Goethe's Faust, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, among many others, including also film and TV—a few of his multiple media) as our tour guide and explicator. Diana, my usual theater companion, and I caught the performance on Wednesday evening, 11 April, at the Harvey Theater in Fort Greene. While I'm not sure Bate, who’s principally a literary scholar and biographer, really answers his own question—“that’s what the plays are for,” rightly observes David Cote in Time Out New York—he and Callow, under the direction of Tom Cairns, do provide some entertaining and provocative glimpses, mostly through the words of the Bard himself, of the world in which Shakespeare (1564-1616) grew up, lived, and worked during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-25).

As performative as Being Shakespeare is, I'm also not sure I'd call it a “play.” (That's not to say it's not theater—how could it not be with that material and Callow on stage looking after it?) If there's a plot, it's the arc of Shakespeare's theatrical career and times—not his life, since we know so little about that—which Callow demonstrates by using the plays and a little of the poetry as illustrations and examples. (The schoolboy William Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor becomes a self-portrait of young Will Shakespeare at the grammar school in Stratford, for instance.) Most of the text is taken from the well-known plays, though we do get to hear a piece from the seldom-performed King John and Callow even recites a speech the great poet contributed to the collaborative Sir Thomas More (a play of multiple authors written anywhere between 1591 and 1604 for which Shakespeare’s believed to have penned one scene). The central concept is based on Jacques's “All the world's a stage” passage in As You Like It and the performance proceeds on a structure provided by “The Seven Ages of Man” from that speech as Bate and Callow pass through each stage as the pearls on the string, starting with the “mewling and puking” infant which Bate modeled with a speech from King John. (Did you know, by the way, that Shakespeare coined the word ‘puke’? That’s among the little fun facts dropped throughout Being Shakespeare.) It’s a workable idea, if a little contrived, though some of the “ages” are somewhat forced into a fit with Shakespeare’s life: for the “soldier,” Bate had to invoke the recruiters that roamed the countryside since Shakespeare was one of the few Elizabethan men who never served under arms and for “justice,” Bate drew on the many legal quarrels with which the poet contended in his life. (Bate makes all this acceptable by arguing that as an actor and play doctor, the young William Shakespeare was both observant and a quick study, soaking up everything that came within his orbit. Anything’s possible, of course.)

The New York Times reviewer likened Being Shakespeare to the old TV show This Is Your Life and in the Daily News, the review called it E! True Hollywood Story about William Shakespeare. Along the way, Bate raises the question of the authorship of the plays and disputes that an ordinary grammar-school boy like William Shakespeare wouldn't be capable of creating the deep, complex, and knowing characters and situations of the greatest stage literature in the English language (if not the entire western world). Besides, Bate points out, the rivals for the ownership of the plays all have disqualifying points—such as the death of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, in 1604—before 12 of the 37-play canon were written. That's amusing, of course, and so are the connections Bate finds between the texts and what we know of Shakespeare's life details or what we can suppose based on his circumstances and the times. And in Callow's hands (and voice, to be sure), it's prodigiously entertaining, like the most illuminating illustrated lecture, but is it a play? Sorry, Professor Bate, but I don’t think so. (Some of you all may have looser definitions of “play,” but that’s your look-out.)

The performance (because that it unquestionably is) took place entirely center stage where a roundish platform had been erected, like a little wooden island on which Callow’d been shipwrecked à la Viola in Twelfth Night or Ferdinand in The Tempest. (The set was designed by director Cairns.) There were very few props—a wooden sword, a stack of books (of which Callow used just one), some chairs, a paper crown, a few trees (the Forest of Arden)—and even fewer effects, such as a fire in a trap from beneath the platform and some sounds from off stage (created by Ben and Max Ringham), though for the most part these all seemed unnecessary and perfunctory. (The few sound effects, like the blood-curdling scream that announced the death of Lady Macbeth, struck me as unfortunate because they called attention to modern technology for little reason and broke the low-tech atmosphere of Callow and the Bard’s words. They intruded.) Callow didn’t don any costumes to spur our imaginations, for instance—he was attired like a bearded, tweedy professor in a sports jacket and slacks—but like Prospero, the actor used his alchemy to conjure up visions and people that ranged from the warrior king, Henry V; to little William of Merry Wives; to Rosalind and Orlando of As You Like It; Mamillius, Hermione, and Leontes of Winter’s Tale; three of the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream at once; and many more. He gave us children like William Page and Mamillius, adolescents like Romeo and Juliet (yes, both), young men like Henry V, women like Rosalind, buffoons like Jacques and Falstaff, and old men like Lear and Prospero, even the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played originally by Shakespeare himself, I learned)—all by just altering his voice the smallest amount and just taking on the psyche and feelings of the character. Man, he made it look easy! Along the way, he evoked goblins, witches, fools, and monarchs; war, legal disputes, capital punishment, and plagues. You name it, if it happened in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, Being Shakespeare gave it to us. And Callow’s imaginary Wooden O managed to contain some pretty vasty fields.

There just isn’t much I can say about Simon Callow’s performance in Being Shakespeare. He’s the whole show, of course, and he’s almost unquestionably a worthy successor of his generation (he’s 62) to legendary actors like Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave, McKellen, and Jacobi. (Among Callow’s many accomplishments is a book entitled Being an Actor. He should know whereof he writes!) It’s hard not to sound like a booster, but the man just does this kind of work with a naturalness that bespeaks prodigious talent and years and years of experience. He’s even done quite a few monodramas in his career, including The Importance of Being Oscar and The Mystery of Charles Dickens. (Being Shakespeare dates from 2010, when Callow toured it around the U.K. as Shakespeare: The Man from Stratford. It was retitled Being Shakespeare when the Ambassador Theatre Group brought it to the West End in 2011.) If Callow did anything wrong, it was dropping his voice from time to time to a level that was inaudible—a characteristic Diana suggested was common to a lot of British actors, though I’ve never particularly noticed. It seemed to me that Callow was so sure of what he was doing and saying, so familiar with both Shakespeare’s words and this performance, that he forgot that there’s a cavern out front filled with people who aren’t. Clearly, some of the blame for this falls on Cairns for not correcting it. In all other respects, Callow made every line, every image, every nuance spring to life from the almost bare stage with only the fewest necessary words that weren’t the Bard’s. All alone—and the few times he picked up a prop, it was clear to me he didn’t really need it—Callow held the stage (and us in the palm of his hand) for an hour and 50 minutes with a single break.

As an argument that the son of a glove-maker, grammar-school pupil, and actor from a backwater could and did write the great plays, Being Shakespeare may not be definitive. Like most of the arguments on both sides of the issue, it’s founded in personal conviction: if you believe Shakespeare wrote the plays, then the proof is strong; if you think someone else wrote them or that Shakespeare simply couldn’t have had the skills and knowledge to accomplish the job, then it’s weak. If you’re a conspiracy buff, no argument’s going to persuade you anyway. What Callow’s presentation does do is show what most theater people feel about this never-ending debate: it’s entirely irrelevant. The plays exist, we say. That’s all that matters. Whatever their origin, we have these gorgeous texts—Eric Grode hyperbolized them in the New York Times as “the most influential, soul-explaining body of literature the world will ever know”—to act in and direct, to adapt and endlessly reconceive, to relish and cherish, to enjoy and learn from. When someone like Simon Callow speaks the speeches (or Vanessa Redgrave, or Ian McKellen, or Derek Jacobi, or Judi Dench, or James Earl Jones, or Orson Welles, or any really good actor), there’s no pleasure in the theater that’s greater, and no other consideration even counts. If we found out tomorrow that some hack named Joe Schmo painted the Mona Lisa or that Karl Schmegegge composed that Fifth Symphony—it wouldn’t make the art any less magnificent. That’s how theater folk feel about the Shakespeare plays. Authorship debate be damned! (When I was a little boy, I was in what passed for a fast-food restaurant in those days—a Hot Shoppe, I think—and on the table was a little card in a plastic holder with what were presented as funny things school kids had written on tests. The one I liked most, and which I still think sums up this whole argument, went this way: Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by William Shakespeare, but by someone else with the same name. So there!)

To be honest, the authorship issue is really just an excuse for the performance. Bate has put together snippets of the plays and poems and added some connective material of his own mostly to paint a portrait of the Elizabethan middle class, life in towns like Stratford-on-Avon and the contrast with dirty and crowded London (The Theatre held twice the entire population of Stratford—another fun fact), and the world of the theater in Renaissance England. This Being Shakespeare accomplishes marvelously, especially since it handed the magical part over to Callow. Aside from having devised the performance environment, which served the material perfectly well, all Cairns had to do as a director, really, was let his actor loose on the script (which doesn’t seem to have been published).

In his Times review, Grode expressed a few reservations about Bate’s text and Cairns’s staging, but none about Callow’s acting (which is “capable of making prose sound like poetry and vice versa”). He calls the production “invigorating”—an odd choice to me but it tells you what he thinks of the presentation—and “fleet-footed.” Joe Dziemianowicz called the performance “vivid and amusing” in the Daily News, and Frank Scheck, also praising Callow’s acting skills, said in the New York Post, “It’s like watching your favorite teacher suddenly morph into Laurence Olivier.” No one I read said anything but that in the end, it’s a pleasure and a delight to experience. If it was nothing else, it was a whole lot of fun—and I’ll buy a whole bushel of that any time.

14 April 2012

'Painting Churches'

More or less on a whim, Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I picked up spot seats for Tina Howe’s Painting Churches for Wednesday, 4 April. (The production closed on 7 April.) The revival, staged by artistic director Carl Forsman for his troupe, the Keen Company, at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre, was the first in New York since the 1983 Off-Broadway première by Second Stage. (The play was aired on PBS as part of the American Playhouse series in 1986.) The last Howe play I’d seen previously was Primary Stage’s première of Chasing Manet in 2009 (see my ROT report on 30 April 2009); before that was Second Stage’s première of Coastal Disturbances in 1987. (I also saw the Atlantic Theater Company’s presentation of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson in Howe’s translation in 2004.) I guess it’s fair to say I’m not a big Tina Howe fan—although I don’t have a problem with her work: I just haven’t found it all that compelling.

Painting Churches, reportedly a 1982 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is about an elderly patrician couple, Fanny and Gardner Church (Kathleen Chalfant and John Cunningham), who are packing up their Beacon Hill townhouse in Boston to move to a beach cottage on Cape Cod. Gardner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Fanny is a Boston Brahmin; their daughter Margaret (Kate Turnbull) is a portraitist who lives in New York. Mags, as she’s called, has come to help her parents pack and to “do” them on canvas for her first one-artist show at a SoHo gallery in New York. As she spends several days with Gardner and Fanny, Mags observes the mental deterioration of her father and her changing relationship to her aging parents.

Forsman founded his company in 2000. “Keen Company produces sincere plays,” says the company’s website. “We believe that theater is at its most powerful when texts and productions are generous in spirit and provoke identification.” I presume that’s Forsman’s voice—the company’s indisputably his. (I’ve only seen a few productions by the troupe, but Forsman’s directed all of them. From the posters in the lobby, I see that a few others have shared directing assignments with him, but he gets the lion’s share.) He is, after all, the guy who asserted that radical views and acts are no longer rebellious: “Now I think true rebellion is saying anything optimistic or positive about humanity.” In what may be the company’s manifesto, Forsman concluded: “Hope is radical.” In any case, Painting Churches seems to meet the criteria: it’s hardly an envelope-pushing, standards-challenging play or production. And there’s not a thing wrong with that—as long as the play meets my basic requirements for good theater: it must do more than tell a story and it must do so in a theatrical way. (I’ve defined those premises on ROT before, so I think I’ll dispense with that this time.) “There’s something about reinventing and rediscovering yourself that feels beautiful to me,” Forsman’s said, and that, to a degree, is what happens to Mags.

The problem is that Howe’s conceived a script in which her three characters have two modes of communication: 1) In various combinations of the trio, they talk at one another or 2), they recount, sometimes at great length, a story from their past. (I suppose the dramatist contrived to have Gardner Church on the cusp of dementia and Fanny forgetful just out of course so that Mags has to relate all her humiliating memories to them for our benefit. The gimmick for Mags is easier—the stories her mother tells are usually from a time when Mags was young enough to have forgotten the details.) In any case, what we get is three self-absorbed people who don’t really connect to each other most of the time, circling one another for two hours without entering each other’s orbit often before spinning off into their own galaxies, whether it’s Gar’s study or Fanny’s happier days of prominence and social influence. I told Diana this all reminded me of a gag we used to have when I was 10 or 12: the Wawa bird. The Wawa’s a bird that lives at the North Pole and flies in ever-decreasing concentric circles going “wa-wa-wa-wa!” until it flies up its own ass. That’s what the characters of Painting Churches are: three Wawa birds.

In any case, there’s a lot of talk about poetry—Gar’s become enamored of Wallace Stevens—and suitable boys from Mags's youth she might have married and other inconsequentialities, as Mags tries to get her parents to sit for her while they’re packing up the house for the move to the Cape. (Diana remarked that the best moments in the play were when Cunningham recited poetry. I observed that two of the longest moments occurred when the characters gathered around an object we couldn’t see: a parakeet which Gar’d taught to recite “Grey’s Elegy” and Mag’s completed portrait.) A great deal of the dialogue, especially Fanny’s lines, is larded with clichés—a piece of silver will fetch “a pretty penny” and things are “at sixes and sevens”—which the actors carry off with aplomb, but which made the play seem all the more stale. As far as I was concerned, nothing of consequence happens, though Howe sets up a few minor crises (Fanny begins to dump the pages of Gar’s manuscript, his magnum opus, unceremoniously into boxes, for instance, and he has a conniption because it’s all out of order like so much trash). The characters don’t move from where they were at the beginning and no one seems to have learned anything—though apparently we’re supposed to feel that Mags has. Even if they had, I never felt any connection to any of them, much less sympathy, which is why I recalled the Wawa bird of my childhood. If the characters don’t connect to each other, how can they connect to us? I say they can’t. In any case they didn’t, at least not to me.

I’ve now seen a few productions from Keen and Forsman, not including those Ionesco one-acts that he directed for ATC (and which were pretty good theater). In 2003, I saw Keen’s revival of P. G. Wodehouse's 1927 comedy, Good Morning, Bill, which Forsman directed also. I recorded that it was an amusing bit of fluff—fun but meaningless—though well enough done. In 2009, I saw Forsman’s staging of the New York première of the French drama Heroes (see my ROT report on 26 March 2009), of which I didn’t think very highly. In all cases, the productions were relatively fine, but the material all lacked any real substance, point, or theme. This seems to be a hallmark of Keen shows, and it suggests a weakness in Forsman’s taste when it comes to selecting plays. The company staff listed in the program didn’t include a dramaturg or literary manager, and maybe that’s a manifestation of the problem: Forsman chooses properties on his own and doesn’t have anyone whispering in his ear. (I wrote an article for ROT on 22 September 2011 about vanity theaters, and this is one of the deficiencies that can occur when an artistic director is answerable only to himself.)

The rest of the production was of a similar quality—competent and nice-looking but insubstantial. Beowulf Boritt’s set, the Churches’ living room, was outlined by curtains for walls with practical floor-to-ceiling shelf alcoves, windows, and a doorway center right. It was so spare, though, that the process of “emptying,” a symbolic reflection of the play’s thematic action, is neither progressive nor impactful. It looked fine, however, a fragmentary or suggested Realism—but every time someone came or went through the doorway, it swayed, shaking the curtain “wall” along with it. As small a breach as this may have been, it consistently broke the illusion that we were watching real people in a real place. Apparently no one could secure the doorframe so it wouldn’t rock, or no one cared enough to bother. The costumes by Jennifer Paar were also well-conceived without being remarkable—except for Fanny’s collection of pillbox hats. (I don’t know where Paar found all those 1960s-looking little creations, or if the company got them made for Chalfant, but they were the most fascinating objects on the stage. I’m not sure if that qualifies them to be called “fascinators” or not.)

By the way: this little fillip raises another, small problem I had. Painting Churches was written in the early ’80s and the preem was certainly set in that period. The program for the Keen revival doesn’t indicate the time of the action, just the place, but I kept vacillating back and forth between the 1980s and the 2010s. Some references seemed clearly to suggest that the “present” was the ’80s, such as recollections of past events that evoked the ’50s or ’60s, too far back for a 20-something Mags; others seemed to have been updated to today, such as the shift from an art gallery on East 57th Street, as the original script had Mags’s solo début, to a SoHo show for this production, making the timing seem more contemporary. Now, this might not be a major significance to the success of the play, but it was confusing to me and seems just sloppy and careless. Oddly, I noted a similar glitch in Edward Albee’s revision of his Lady from Dubuque at the Signature Theatre last month (see my ROT report on 19 March), but as that was a better play, I dismissed it as an inconsequential curiosity. It was inconsequential here, too, but it bugged me more.

As far as the acting was concerned, both Chalfant and Cunningham captured their characters impeccably. Whatever else didn’t work at the Clurman, it wasn’t at the hands (or faces or voices) of these two actors. They put across the epitome of the doddering ex-professor and the waning Boston aristocrat—it wasn’t their fault that Howe gave them so little to play that they quickly became clichés. Nothing Gar and Fanny did or said was particularly unexpected (most, in fact, was predictable), but what was surprising was how perfectly Cunningham and Chalfant did and said it. The eccentricities displayed by Fanny were entirely natural coming from Chalfant, and the fear and confusion that flitted across Gar’s face when he didn’t understand something was frighteningly convincing (and, unhappily, I’ve seen it for real). The nuances and quirks the actors found made the two oldsters wonderful to watch, even if not much they were up to was especially interesting. The same can’t be said for Turnbull, a much less experienced performer, who never found a way to make Mags anything more than a stereotype—the self-absorbed artist, the distracted daughter, or whatever label you like. She was trying too hard, both as Mags and as the actress playing her. Since Howe never got the family to interact more than superficially, the detail work of Cunningham and Chalfant went for naught and their strength as performers never had a chance to lift up Turnbull’s acting or to draw more out of her than the basic behavior Howe wrote for Mags. (Michael Feingold of the Village Voice disagreed: he found that the cast displayed “handsome teamwork, each having one foot firmly anchored in reality, yet each seeming capable of floating off at any moment into the shadow area . . . .”) Obviously, Forsman’s directing was at fault in this, too, in his failure to provide guidance and . . . well, direction to attempt to overcome the deficits in the script. (My impression is that Forsman can’t or won’t do this, even if he sees the problem. My sense is that he doesn’t dig beneath the surface of the play’s “sincerity” for anything more than the words and stage directions provide. That may please some writers, but it’s not theater directing as far as I’m concerned. It’s traffic directing.)

In the New York Times, David Rooney agreed that Chalfant and Cunningham were “transfixing” as the elder Churches but described Turnbull’s Mags as “strained” and “actressy.” Rooney characterized Forsman’s production as “pedestrian” and “imbalanced” and said it “robs the play of some nuance.” Linda Winer, while overall praising the revival in Newsday, noted the “imbalance”, too, suggesting the blame maybe on Forsman’s directing. In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz hit a similar note, writing, “the strokes aren’t just right and the balance of light and dark is out of whack,” adding that under Forsman’s directing, “what’s meant to [be] idiosyncratic and charming grates.” Elaborately praising Chalfant’s portrayal, David Sheward in Back Stage continued that Forsman “allows the balance to shift too much toward Fanny.” He concluded that the revival was “still a moving version of a complex work.” In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman called the Keen production “disenchanting,” saying that “Howe's play is a compendium of unpleasant noises, amplified in a plodding production.” He described the play’s structure as “alternating tiresome chatter about silverware and breeding with self-piteous family-therapy confrontations.” Calling Chalfant the production’s “greatest asset,” Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in the New York Post that it “otherwise never quite finds its pulse." In the Voice, however, Feingold defended the revival, saying that is “has been unjustly ragged on for providing almost exactly what Howe seems to desire.” In Variety, Marilyn Stasio called the production “earthbound” because Howe’s “suggestive style of poetic impressionism fails to register”—though she concluded that the play is “still a stunner.”

09 April 2012

Washington’s Cherry Blossoms

Starting on Tuesday, 27 March this year, Washington, D.C., will mark the 100th anniversary of the Japanese cherry trees that have been the focus of an annual festival in the Nation’s Capital for 77 years. The National Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the most popular events in Washington and brings many visitors to the city, and especially the Tidal Basin, where the original gift from Japan creates one of the most stunning sights in the country—if not the world. The white and pale pink blooms—the Washington trees don’t bear fruit—reflecting in the water of the little inlet within view of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial (my candidate for the most beautiful monument in the Capital), on a sunny, warm spring afternoon provide the backdrop for a tranquil stroll along the lawn (dogs, by the way, are welcome at the Tidal Basin, though there are common-sense rules for canine decorum) or a long moment on a bench. (Parking, potential visitors should note, is very difficult—almost impossible, to be accurate—near the Tidal Basin when the trees are in bloom.)

Japan gave 3,020 cherry trees (Prunus serrulata, often called sakura after the Japanese name for the variety) to the United States on 27 March 1912 to celebrate the nations’ growing friendship, replacing an earlier gift of 2,000 trees in 1910 which had to be destroyed because of infestation. The 1912 trees, a gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington like the earlier sakura, line the shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington, where the first two were planted by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Iwa Chinda, wife of Count Sutemi Chinda, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S.

The effort to bring cherry trees to Washington, however, preceded the official planting by several decades. In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a writer, photographer, and geographer who’d go on to become the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, returned from her first trip to Japan and, enchanted by “the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show,” suggested to Spencer Cosby, Superintendent of the U.S. Army Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, planting cherry trees along the barren parkland that had just been reclaimed from the Potomac River’s mud flats. Cosby rejected Scidmore’s idea, but she continued to propose it to every superintendent for the next 24 years. Several private individuals brought cherry trees to the region during this period and Scidmore herself hosted a cherry blossom tea party and viewing in northwest D.C. in 1905. Among the guests was prominent botanist David Fairchild and his fiancée Marian, the youngest daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

In 1906, Fairchild, manager of the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, imported 1,000 cherry trees from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan and planted them on his own property in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. The following year, the Fairchilds, pleased with the success of the transplants, began promoting Japanese flowering cherry trees as ideal to plant along avenues in the Nation’s Capital. On 26 September 1907, with the help of the Fairchilds and their friends, the Chevy Chase Land Company ordered 300 Japanese cherry trees for the suburb. In 1908, Fairchild donated sakura saplings to every school in the District to plant on its grounds in observance of Arbor Day on 15 April. Concluding an Arbor Day speech that Eliza Scidmore attended, Fairchild proposed that the "Speedway" (a road around the Tidal Basin that no longer exists) be turned into a "Field of Cherries." The next year, Scidmore decided to raise the money to donate cherry trees to the District of Columbia for this purpose.

In April 1909, the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline, Jokichi Takamine, happened to be in Washington with Kokicho Midzuno, the Japanese consul-general in New York City. Hearing of the plan to plant sakura along the Speedway, Takamine asked if First Lady Helen Taft, who’d been receptive to Scidmore’s cherry tree notion, would accept 2,000 additional trees and Midzuno suggested that the trees be given in the name of the city of Tokyo. Takamine and Midzuno then met the First Lady, who accepted the gift. On 30 August 1909, the Japanese Embassy in Washington informed the U.S. State Department that the city of Tokyo planned to donate 2,000 cherry trees to the United States to be planted along the Potomac. The trees arrived in the Nation’s Capital on 6 January 1910; however, USDA inspectors discovered that the trees were infested with insects and roundworms and had to be destroyed. President William Howard Taft ordered the trees burned and Secretary of State Philander C. Knox wrote the Japanese Ambassador expressing the regret of all involved. Takamine responded to the news with another donation of more trees, 3,020 in all.

On 14 February 1912, 3,020 cherry trees of 12 varieties were shipped to the District of Columbia by way of Seattle, arriving in the Capital on 26 March. In a ceremony the next day, Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda planted two sakura on the north bank of the Tidal Basin at the end of 17th Street Southwest in West Potomac Park, where they still stand today, marked by a large plaque. At the end of the ceremony, the First Lady presented the Japanese ambassador’s wife with a bouquet of American Beauty roses and in 1915, the United States government responded to Japan’s gesture of friendship with a gift to the Japanese people of flowering dogwood trees. From 1913 to 1920, trees of the Somei-Yoshino variety, which comprised 1,800 of the 3,020, were planted around the Tidal Basin. Trees of the other 11 varieties, and the remaining Yoshinos, were planted in East Potomac Park.

In 1927, a group of American school children re-enacted the initial planting, effectively holding the first “festival,” and in 1934, the D.C. Board of Commissioners, the Capital’s presidentially appointed city council, sponsored a three-day celebration of the flowering cherry trees. The next year, a consortium of District civic groups sponsored the first formal Cherry Blossom Festival, and the trees by this time having become an vibrant part of the Nation's Capital, the festival became an annual event. As if to demonstrate just how treasured the trees had become to Washingtonians, a group of society women, led by flamboyant Washington Times-Herald editor Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, chained themselves to the trees at the site of the planned Jefferson Memorial on 18 November 1938 to protest plans to cut down trees to clear ground for the monument. The government and the protesters reached a compromise by which additional trees would be planted along the south side of the Tidal Basin to frame the Memorial. The festival sponsors inaugurated a Cherry Blossom Pageant in 1940.

On the night of 11 December 1941, four days after the raid on Pearl Harbor, unknown vandals cut down four sakura during a blackout. Authorities suspected that this misguided act was a retaliation for the Japanese attack, though this was never confirmed. In hopes of discouraging further attacks on the trees, they were referred to as "Oriental" flowering cherry trees during the war. Suspended during World War II, the festival resumed in 1947 with the support of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the city’s Board of Commissioners.

In 1948, the National Conference of State Societies started the Cherry Blossom Princess and Cherry Blossom Queen programs. Each state and territory selects a Princess, and a Queen is selected to reign over the festival from among the Princesses by a spin of the Wheel of Fortune. (A Japan Cherry Blossom Princess is selected by the Japanese Embassy to participate in the festival. She lights the ceremonial lantern at the Tidal Basin, for instance.) The president of the Mikimoto Pearl Company, Yositaka Mikimoto, donated the Mikimoto Pearl Crown in 1958. Containing more than five pounds of gold and 1,585 pearls, the crown is used at the coronation of the Festival Queen at the Grand Ball, scheduled for Friday, 13 April in 2012.

On 30 March 1954, Sadao Iguchi, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., gave a 360-year-old stone lantern, a toro, to the city of Washington to commemorate the centennial of the signing of the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Friendship by Commodore Matthew C. Perry and Shogun Ieyoshi Tokugawa. For several years, the lighting of this toro formally opened the festival; now it’s lit in the middle of the celebration; this is the only time each year that the ancient lantern is illuminated. In 1957, Ryozo Hiranuma, the Mayor of Yokohama, presented a stone pagoda to former Washington commissioner Renah Camalier to "symbolize the spirit of friendship between the United States of America manifested in the Treaty of Peace, Amity and Commerce signed at Yokohama on March 31, 1854."; Camalier subsequently donated the stone monument to the people of the District; it stands at the opposite end of the Tidal Basin from the lantern.

The Japanese gave the District 3,800 more Yoshino trees in 1965. These trees, accepted by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, were mostly planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument. For the occasion, the First Lady and Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of the Japanese ambassador, reenacted the 1912 planting.

From 1986 to 1988, 676 sakura were planted using $101,000 in private funds donated to the National Park Service to restore the trees to the number at the time of the original gift. Cuttings were taken from the documented 1912 trees in 1997 to be used in replacement plantings and thus preserve the genetic heritage of the grove. In 1999, 50 trees of the Usuzumi variety from Motosu, Gifu, were planted in West Potomac Park. According to legend, these trees were first planted by Emperor Keitai in the 6th century and were designated a National Treasure of Japan in 1922. From 2002 to 2006, 400 trees propagated from the surviving 1912 trees were planted to ensure the genetic heritage of the original donation is maintained.

Of the initial gift of 12 varieties of the first 3,020 trees, two—the Yoshino and Kwanzan—now dominate. The Yoshino produces single white blossoms that create an effect of white clouds around the Tidal Basin and north onto the grounds of the Washington Monument. Intermingled with the Yoshino are a small number of Akebono cherry trees, which bloom at the same time as the Yoshino and produce single, pale pink blossoms. The Kwanzans grow primarily in East Potomac Park and come into bloom two weeks after the Yoshino. They produce clusters of clear pink double blossoms. East Potomac Park also has Fugenzo trees, which produce rosy pink double blossoms, and Shirofugen, which produce white double blossoms that age to pink.

Interspersed among all the trees are the Weeping Cherry, which produces a variety of single and double blossoms of colors ranging from dark pink to white about a week before the Yoshino. Other varieties that can be found are the Autumn Cherry (semi-double, pink), Sargent Cherry (single, deep pink), Usuzumi (white-grey), and Takesimensis (white).

In 1994, the Cherry Blossom Festival was expanded to two weeks to accommodate the many activities that take place during the trees’ blooming. Today the National Cherry Blossom Festival is coordinated by the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc., an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of business, civic, and governmental organizations (http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org). More than 700,000 people visit Washington each year to admire the blossoming cherry trees that herald the beginning of spring in the Nation's Capital.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is planned to coincide as nearly as possible with the blooming of the trees, but because it must be planned long in advance, it sometimes fails to occur during the peak of the cherry blooms. Peak Bloom Date is defined as the day on which 70% of the blossoms of the Yoshino cherry trees are open. The date on which the Yoshino sakura reach peak bloom varies from year to year, depending on weather conditions. The mean date of blooming is 4 April, but nature isn’t always cooperative and the National Park Service horticulturists can’t make an accurate prediction much more than ten days prior to the blooming. The blooming period starts several days before the Peak Bloom Date and can last as long as 14 days; however, frost or high temperatures combined with wind or rain (or both) can shorten this period and all the planning (and hotel reservations) can’t compensate for nature’s whims. This year, for instance, the excessively warm winter caused the trees to flower more than a week before the traditional start of the festival. The blossoms only last about two weeks, so when they sprout early, the festival can be celebrated among trees laden with only green leaflets; if the blooms are late because of colder weather, the trees may be bare or have only buds. With almost 4,000 cherry trees of 16 different varieties in and around the city, though, some will be in bloom during a lot of the early spring weeks, festival or no festival. This March, visitors to Washington at winter’s end were surprised and delighted to see the billowing clouds of flowers across the city, especially around the Tidal Basin. The festivities, of course, go on regardless, and to commemorate the centennial, this year’s festival will comprise five weeks of festivities rather than the usual two, expanded to 20 March-27 April, with the opening ceremony scheduled for Sunday, 25 March. (Because of the extended schedule, events that customarily take place on the same days are this year spread out over the five weeks. Bear in mind that this is a one-time—once in a hundred years—alteration, and the usual procedure will be back in force in 2013.)

The festival customarily begins with a Family Day and an official opening ceremony in the National Building Museum on the last Saturday of March (this year, there are two Family Days, Saturday and Sunday, 24 and 25 March). Members of the Taft, Ozaki, and Takamine families will be in attendance. An array of activities and cultural events takes place on the following days. (Traditionally, the National Cherry Blossom Festival officially begins on or near 27 March, the date of the first planting at the Tidal Basin. This year, the expanded schedule doesn’t even include any activities on that auspicious date.) The Blossom Kite Festival usually takes place during the festival's first weekend (this year, on Saturday, 31 March, on the grounds of the Washington Monument). Every day there is a sushi/sake celebration, classes about cherry blossoms, and a bike tour of the Tidal Basin. Other events include art exhibits, cultural performances, traditional rakugo storytelling presentations, kimono fashion shows, dance, singing, martial arts, and a rugby tournament.

There are stage performances of many types of music, dance, martial arts, marching bands, and other entertainments, normally on the second Saturday of the celebration. This year, the Canon Performance Stage at Sylvan Theater, the festival’s primary stage, has been in operation in the shadow of the Washington Monument from 31 March to 15 April starting at noon. Jazz performances will take place on a stage set before the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in the early evening from 19 to 22 April. When the festival ends, a fireworks show begins on the nearby Washington Channel (on Saturday, 7 April this year, in the middle of the extended celebration). Ordinarily, the next morning, the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run begins on the grounds of the Washington Monument and passes within sight of all the Capital’s monuments; this year’s 40th run, however, will be on Sunday, 1 April, at 7:30 in the morning. Later in the day, dignitaries usually gather at the Tidal Basin to participate in a ceremonial lighting of the 360-year old Japanese Stone Lantern (Sunday, 8 April between 12:30 and 4 p.m. for the centennial year). The Japan Cherry Blossom Princess traditionally lights the toro.

Normally on the last Saturday of the festival, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade takes place along Constitution Avenue. (Katie Couric and Alex Trebec are the hosts this year.) During and after the parade, the Sakura Matsuri-Japanese Street Festival, the largest Japanese Cultural Festival in the United States, takes place at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. (sakura matsuri means ‘cherry blossom festival.’) This year, however, the parade and the street festival are both planned for 14 April, almost two weeks before the festival ends.

In 2009, the National Cherry Blossom Festival introduced an alternative event to its lineup: Cherry Blast, an underground-style mix of projected art, dance performances, live music, fashion, and DJ’s that took place in an empty (but festively decorated) Anacostia warehouse. In 2010, Cherry Blast II moved to a storage warehouse in the hip Northwest neighborhood of Adams Morgan, but still featured an eclectic group of local artists and musicians. Cherry Blast III took place indoors near the Southwest Waterfront in the evening of the 2011 festival's second Saturday, during and after the festival's nearby fireworks show. In 2012, Cherry Blast is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, 21 and 22 April, at 2235 Shannon Place in Southeast, near the Anacostia Freeway and Anacostia Park along the Anacostia River. (Most partygoers board a special bus at Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington.)

Because of the extended celebration for 2012, there are dozens more activities planned for the Cherry Blossom Festival, some part of the official schedule and others organized independently to coincide with the festival. In ordinary years, with a two-week program, there are fewer events, of course, though celebrations of the blooming trees goes on as long as they’re in flower, irrespective of a formal festival. (There are also city festivals elsewhere, including nearby Philadelphia.) The original trees at the Tidal Basin and their progeny may only bloom for a short, and somewhat unpredictable, period, but other sakura start later or flower longer, so there are pink and white blossoms all over the metropolitan area, and just driving though the city and the suburbs can be enchanting in the early spring. Washington, built partly on reclaimed swampland, can be unbearably steamy in summer and the winters can be bitter and snowy. Though the fall is nice, spring is the Capital’s most delightful season, and the tourists have figured this out! As I said earlier, though, strolling among the old trees around the Tidal Basin, especially with family or friends, is more than worth a day’s respite. I grew up with this phenomenon of nature (assisted by human devotion), and the images of Washington framed by cherry blossoms is a cherished memory still. The last time my family and I went down to the Tidal Basin when the cherries were in bloom, my dad was still well enough to enjoy the outing and I had my dog Thespis, still young and frisky enough to frolic at the end of his leash. Both Dad and Thespis have now died, tinting that memory with sorrow—but it’s still a nice picture. If you can work it out, I heartily recommend a trip to D.C. one spring when the cherry trees are flowering. Believe me, you won’t forget it. (Okay, I’m a chauvinist. So sue me!)

[On Friday, 30 March, the New York Times ran a column by Jackie Calmes, a national correspondent for the paper, recounting her own visit to the Tidal Basin and the cherry trees while they were in bloom. Along with “A Fleeting Beauty, Shared With the Multitudes,” Calmes published a guide to places to eat near the Tidal Basin (“Much to Savor With the Cherry Blossoms”). The illustration with the article, a photograph by Brendan Hoffman, shows a scene that epitomizes springtime in the Nation’s Capital for me: the Jefferson Memorial in the distance, framed above and on the right by the branches of a flowering tree and below and to the left by the waters of the Tidal Basin. It’s an iconic view, one of my favorite images of the city of my birth.]

04 April 2012

'’Tis Pity She’s a Whore'

The spring season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this year looks pretty interesting, at least on paper, so Diana, my frequent theater partner, and I decided to increase our theater activities by four and subscribe. The first offering was John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, staged at the Harvey Theatre by Cheek by Jowl, the innovative British company directed by Declan Donnellan. We caught the evening performance on Wednesday, 28 March.

Now, going into this production, I had some reservations, including the important fact that I just don’t like Jacobean drama, especially the tragedies. ’Tis Pity, which was published in 1633 and may have been first performed as early as 1629, is among the grimmest and most dismal plays I’ve ever seen or read (not to mention one of the bloodiest), and I’ve seen at least two productions of it before this one. I also saw Cheek by Jowl stage The Duchess of Malfi, another bloody Jacobean stomach-churner, at BAM back in 1995. And that raises another problem I had with this production before I walked in the theater doors: I’ve seen a couple of Cheek by Jowl’s performances and haven’t liked them very much. Malfi turned into a play about moving a chair! I recorded that I found the production “self-indulgent and pretentious.” (I also saw their 1998 staging of Much Ado About Nothing, but I don’t remember much about the show. I did, however, stop going to Cheek by Jowl after that, it seems.) On the other hand, however, Diana had never seen the play, and from a financial point of view, we needed to book four shows at BAM to qualify for the subscription discount, and there were only four plays on offer—so it was either see ’Tis Pity again, or pay full freight for the other performances. So, there I was.

I know that’s not an auspicious motivation for being in the audience of a piece of theater. You never know, though: surprises do happen.

’Tis Pity She's a Whore tells the tale of an incestuous love between Giovanni and his sister Annabella, the children of the wealthy Florio, that ends in disaster and death. (Some critics have seen Ford’s play as a commentary on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There are also allusions to both Hamlet and Othello in the story and characters, but without the subtleties of Shakespeare’s humanity or his poetry. There are no great lines in ’Tis Pity.) Set in Parma, Italy, the story takes place against a background of lust, vengeance, and greed that ends in a gruesome bloodbath. There are many subplots in the original text, the most important of which concerns Hippolita, the betrayed and vengeful lover of one of Annabella's suitors, Soranzo. When Annabella becomes pregnant by Giovanni, the Friar convinces her to marry Soranzo to hide her scandal. Hippolita, who dispensed with a husband for Soranzo, become irreconcilably jealous and plots to have her former lover killed. Soranzo’s servant Vasques turns the tables on her, however, and she drinks her own poison, meant for Soranzo. (There are more of those little plots, but Donnellan cut the others out.) When Soranzo discovers Annabella’s pregnancy, however, the over-loyal Vasques tries to uncover the identity of Annabella’s lover. She won’t reveal her secret to her husband so Soranzo plots revenge, to take place at his birthday celebration among all the celebrities of Parma. Giovanni, however, beats Soranzo to the punch and dispatches Annabella in the most gruesome manner. The play’s treatment of the incest made it one of the most controversial works in English literature. The play was omitted from a 19th-century collection of Ford's plays; its title has often been changed to something euphemistic such as Giovanni and Annabella, The Brother and Sister, or the truncated ’Tis Pity. Until well into the 20th century, critics were severe in their condemnations. The subject matter offended them, as did Ford's failure to condemn Giovanni.

The Cheek by Jowl production, designed in modern dress, has been on tour since last November, so far having played in Paris, Sidney, and a number of cities in the U.K., including London, Cambridge, and Oxford. After Brooklyn, ’Tis Pity, which ran at BAM from 20 to 31 March, goes on to Madrid. The company was started in 1981 by Donnellan, who directs most of the productions (all the ones I’ve seen), and Nick Ormerod, the company’s designer. (The company’s name comes from a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Donnellan says that it “enshrines the company's devotion to the classics.”) The troupe, though London-based, is international, working in English, French, Spanish, and Russian, and they tour prodigiously—over 301 cities in 40 countries around the globe. Their manifesto is “to re-examine classical texts, avoiding directorial and design concepts, and to focus on the actor's art.” Donnellan says of this ’Tis Pity that “we never enter a play with ‘ideas.’ This is just how ’Tis Pity seems to have come out this time . . . .” The current production isn’t the first time Donnellan’s staged Ford’s tragedy: In 1980, the year before he and Ormerod formed their company, he directed another modern-dress performance of the play in London which became the launching pad for Cheek by Jowl.

Donnellan, who’s started a Russian company in Moscow and has worked for such illustrious troupes as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre, and the Moscow Art Theater, is best known for stripping his productions down to their basic impact. He doesn’t rip the heart out the way Richard Maxwell did in his recent adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Early Plays (see my ROT report on 14 March), but he goes straight for the emotional jugular. Ormerod, too, is a minimalist: his sets present only what the spectators need to see what’s happening and the actors to do their business, but little more. (The pair say that the settings aren’t conceived until rehearsals are underway, but Ormerod interprets what the actors and Donnellan devise and his style is mostly spare.) My own sense of the productions I’d seen before is that this impels Cheek by Jowl to speed through the plays as if propelled by adrenaline. They take little time, it seems to me, either to let the emotions and actions communicate to the audience, or to motivate the characters. The result for me has been a flat, shallow performance, even if it’s technically proficient. ’Tis Pity, for example, runs an intermissionless hour and fifty-five minutes, which is short for a Jacobean play. I don’t know how long the play regularly runs, probably well over two hours, or exactly how much Cheek by Jowl has cut from the text, but it suggests to me that they’ve probably shaved ten minutes or more off the presentation by pacing alone. (I can’t prove this, but it’s my sense of things. I’d have to reread the text to be sure, but Donnellan’s cut at least one subplot and the characters involved in it—Jacobean plays are usually chockablock with elaborate intrigues and conspiracies—as the company’s done in the past.)

This particular play may have benefitted from both the trimming and the rapid performance. Diana remarked, when I pointed this out, that otherwise the play would have been tedious. (I’d have used a stronger adjective myself, more like deadly or bleak, but I’ll accept tedious for now.) As it was presented, though, Diana found the production enjoyable and interesting. She, of course, had no expectations since she’d never seen the play before and hadn’t read any reviews to prejudice her opinion. (In contrast to Ben Brantley’s prediction that Donnellan’s interpretation “would bewilder those who don’t know” the play, Diana’s experience seems to have benefitted from the pruning.) The audience’s response at the end was enthusiastic, though there were large sections of the auditorium empty, suggesting possibly that other BAM supporters rejected the play based on its rep, and one or two left during the performance (though I can’t be sure why, of course—the subject matter of the play can be disquieting).

Ormerod’s setting for the production is the bedroom of Annabella, all in reds and washed with red light. (The lighting was designed by Judith Powell.) The costumes (also by Ormerod) are essentially di-chromatic—black and white—with splashes of bright red such as in the dress of one partygoer at the wedding and again at a birthday gala, and the sash of the cardinal at the birthday. This color scheme doesn’t take into account the pink flesh if the nudity—full dorsal when it occurs—and near nudity—many of the men bare their chests at the drop of a . . . well, shirt—that Donnellan’s included in the production. The room’s basically a rectangle, with a door to the corridor up right and an en suite bathroom up left. The perimeter of the room is lined with bits and pieces—furniture, discarded clothing, pillows, a bean-bag chair, and so on, all shades of red—with a wide path cleared around the middle. It looks like a teenaged girl’s room, with various posters on the up-stage wall (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the cable vampire-and-werewolf series True Blood, Dial M for Murder), and a messy bed—red sheets, to be sure—in the center of the stage. It’s the center of the action, too: many of the scenes take place on or near the bed. Neither Donnellan nor Ormerod can be accused here of being too subtle with their symbolism: the reds evoke both blood and illicit sex; the bare skin reminds us, as if we need the reminder, that this is a play about sex; and the bed . . . well, it speaks for itself, doesn’t it. (That scarlet dress, by the way, is worn by the actress who also plays Annabella’s enabling maid Putana, whose name means ‘whore’ in Italian. Coincidence?) The stage is relatively dimly lit as if the curtains are always closed and the lights are all low wattage—except the bright white-tiled bathroom (where much of the ghastly business is done—a death by poison, a throat-slitting, and the gouging out of Annabella’s beating heart): when the door opens, the light in there is very bright. No matter where Ford set his scenes, Cheek by Jowl’s whole production takes place in Annabella’s bedroom and everyone’s welcome: father, brother-lover, suitors, husband, friar, party guests, servants—whoever. Is this because Annabella’s the whore of the title?

Aside from the sped-up, unsubtle performance style which is the hallmark of the Cheek by Jowl shows I’ve seen, Donnellan has incorporated some other stylistic elements in ’Tis Pity. Starting with the opening moment, the cast breaks into group dance of various types, beginning with that looks like techno but later also includes some disco-inspired moves and a tarantella. (The music and sound are created by Nick Powell and the “movement” is staged by associate director Jane Gibson.) Sometimes the dancing is related to the scene, like the wedding or birthday celebrations, but other times it’s gratuitous. Another of Donnellan’s stylized insertions is to have the whole cast on stage for many scenes, sitting or standing silently around the periphery of the room. The meaning of this wasn’t entirely clear to me; it may be a manifestation of Donnellan’s idea that everyone’s collectively guilty of the transgressions that are playing out or an enforced contrast of the pure (though forbidden) love of Annabella and Giovanni with the corruption of the society than condemns them. Occasionally, only one intruding character is present, such as the servant Vasques or, frequently, Giovanni, who witness moments in which they aren’t actually involved. Then, of course, is the nudity I mentioned earlier—certainly something that wouldn’t have occurred to Ford and his company in Renaissance England. (There’s even a leather-clad male stripper, not a character in Ford’s text, who first bites out the tongue of the blabbermouth maid Putana, then takes her moaning body into the well-used bathroom to kill her. It’s hard to conceive of topping the Grand Guignol of Ford’s original, but this emendation manages to.) As for the persistent criticism that Ford doesn’t condemn Annabella or Giovanni for breaking the taboos, Donnellan’s cut the final line in which Annabella’s reviled with the title sentence, “’Tis pity she’s a whore,” but he does add the ominous whine of police sirens approaching Florio’s house, promising some kind of consequences, however ambiguous. I won’t say I truly enjoyed all this, theatrically speaking, of course, but it can be said that Donnellan’s additions and adjustments energized this grinding play. On its own, that’s a benefit, but I also can’t say that it added anything to the play’s point or meaning for me. What’s that expression? You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Cheek by Jowl’s ’Tis Pity is a pig with lipstick.

I’ve already characterized the performances in general: unsubtle, superficial, and fast-paced. Those are all clearly directorial choices since they were universal and echoes of past productions I’ve seen. Though none of the actors stumbled or tripped over the imposed style, none really stood out, either. Despite the implications of the play’s title, Lydia Wilson’s Annabella is believably naïve and credulous, a very young woman, older than Juliet, but an adolescent nonetheless. Ford wrote her as innocent or at least disingenuous, but Wilson is more reckless and willful, which works in the modern setting. I didn’t have any problem believing that Giovanni could convince her to succumb to their mutual attraction and that she could believe their passion was pure and innocent even if no one else ever would. Jack Gordon’s Giovanni is totally narcissistic and prone to sophistry, including the self-deluding kind. He’s too old—a university student home from his studies (more Hamlet’s age than Romeo’s)—to be entirely innocent, but he knows how to manipulate his own mind as well as others’ to make it seem that what he wants is natural and right, even though he certainly knows how destructive it will end up being. (Brantley calls the character “Byronic,” which may be apt, what with Gordon’s dark, curly mop—what we used to call a “white afro.”) He even lets the Friar (played at this performance by Ryan Ellsworth) think that the priest has convinced him to give up his pursuit of Annabella when he has no intention of doing that. Gordon’s a very clever college boy who knows he’s smart, but isn’t wise: he has all the answers. Until he doesn’t. But while both siblings say all the right words—Annabella, after she marries Soranzo (a stalwart but ego-driven Jack Hawkins) and he learns of her pregnancy, tries to argue him into accepting both her and her child—but they obviously never learn anything along the way. Wilson and Gordon both rush headlong toward their fates so inexorably that they never take a moment to see what’s happening to them. As much as this is Donnellan’s responsibility, the actors never find a way even to suggest their characters know what they’re getting into. When the director says he doesn’t go into a play “with ‘ideas,’” maybe this is what results. That’s the heart of the problem I have with Cheek by Jowl’s performance style. I have no doubt that these actors can all do the Stanislavsky bit with credibility—Wilson and, especially, Gordon have a slew of impressive credits and a few films (where grounded Realism is usually the standard), for instance—but this company’s technique doesn’t allow it. And yet, this isn’t Brechtian distancing or some other obviously un-realistic or anti-realistic performance style—it’s some compromise of the two poles: neither fish nor fowl. It wasn’t unbearable, but it wasn’t illuminating, either. I fall back on my criteria for good theater: it has to do more than tell a story and it has to be theatrical. Cheek by Jowl is theatrical, though I often think it’s cheaply so, but they seem to be doing little more here than staging (part of) Ford’s tale. If Donnellan developed an “idea,” even if he didn’t start with one, I never found it.

Curiously, the most vibrant performances in Donnellan’s cast come from the actors playing two of the servants. Laurence Spellman’s Vasques, who serves Annabella’s husband Soranzo and isn’t above a little skullduggery and even murder-for-hire (that stripper-assassin is Vasques’s henchman), and Lizzie Hopley’s Putana, who just can’t keep her mouth shut and spills the beans about Annabella’s baby-daddy, both deliver the most complete characterizations on the Harvey stage. They have full personalities—at least as far as this production will allow and their roles provide room for—and they don’t disappear into the background of the lurking circle of family and friends. Spellman has a sepulchral demeanor, kind of a Uriah Heep with brass balls, and I knew whenever he was on stage that something dastardly (yeah, this show calls up archaic words like that) was going on. Hopley’s a bit of a flibbertigibbet with a dark edge: as she tries to help Annabella rationalize her lust for Giovanni: she sounds like a sorority sister just convincing her roommate to go out with the football star.

Calling the interpretation “overheated,” Brantley characterizes it in the New York Times as “seriously overdressed, like a fashion victim begging to be photographed.” He sums up his assessment of the production, as I do mine, by observing that the “trimmings are piled on so heavily that they smother individual characterization.” Elisabeth Vincentelli writes in the New York Post: “Throughout, the show moves with a breathless momentum, while keeping everything in horrifyingly clear focus—like the best nightmares.” Joe Dziemianowicz describes the production as “bold but spare” in the Daily News. In Time Out New York, Helen Shaw dubs the show “disappointingly thin, superficially youthful” and characterizes Donnellan and Ormerod’s “reimagination” as “the fevered product of a goth-adolescent mind” which is “[s]trenuously trying to seem punk rock.” She writes that the staging is “ersatz rebelliousness that defangs the show.” Variety hasn’t reviewed the New York incarnation of the production, but in London, David Benedict said: “the self-conscious execution smothers content, narrative and drama.” He also noted, as I do here, that “the intensity of the emotions comes across but not the moment-to-moment progression of ideas or character.” Benedict’s conclusion sounds like my own assessment of Cheek by Jowl’s work as I’ve experienced it: “Donnellan's extreme directorial gestures are undeniably grand, but shorn of convincing detail, there's too much display, not enough play.”