29 July 2012

'Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters' (Piccolo Teatro di Milano, 2005)

[On 9 July, I published my report on a production of Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. That production was an adaptation by playwright Constance Congdon, first performed by Hartford Stage in 1996. In 2005, I saw an older interpretation at the Lincoln Center Festival, a 1947 version, called Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters, originally staged by the internationally renowned Italian director Giorgio Strehler, the founder of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano who died in 1997. As a contrast to the STC production, originally presented in 2010 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I’m publishing my seven-year-old report on the Lincoln Center performance. Even though Goldoni’s play is a classic, you’ll see that the interpretations of his 270-year-old script are quite different. (The second part of this report, which I have deleted here, covered the LCF performance of the Théâtre du Soliel’s Le Dernier Caravansérail, staged by Ariane Mnouchkine.)]

The Lincoln Center Festival is a clear and unambiguous representation that New York City gets more and a broader variety of cultural events from all over the world than, I believe, anywhere else on the planet. (I’ve never done a survey—and I’m not aware that anyone else has—but unscientifically, I think that’s so. For theater alone it seem to be true, but if you add in opera, dance, and music performances, and then count all the visiting visual art exhibits—New York City is the capital of the world.) In July 2005, I saw the Piccolo Teatro di Milano’s Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni and Le Dernier Caravansérail by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil. Both productions were fascinating experiences, and both had serious flaws as productions despite extraordinary performances.

The Piccolo Teatro di Milano, founded by Giorgio Strehler in 1947 as one of the first cultural endeavors of post-WWII Italy, experienced the throes of rebirth when Strehler died in 1997 at 76,. The Piccolo turned to two men to preserve Strehler’s vision: opera house manager Sergio Escobar and the experimental theater director Luca Ronconi. Through the continuity of artists like Ferruccio Soleri (who restaged Strehler’s Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters this year), a member of Piccolo’s company since 1958, the troupe’s been able to keep up the work Strehler began, maintaining the Piccolo as a home to the classics and the works of the great writers of the 20th century like Beckett, Brecht, and Pirandello, becoming known as the “Theater of Art for Everyone.” Strehler took a less innovative view of the classic plays the Piccolo presented than contemporary auteur directors like Araine Mnouchkine, reviving the plays’ spirits and relevance without reinterpreting their milieux or texts. The Piccolo’s production of Goldoni’s Trilogia della Villeggiatura, for instance, is staged as an 18th-century comedy even if the energy and dynamic of the cast is as modern as David Mamet. Strehler, and now his successors, put an emphasis on the physical work of actors—Strehler was a specialist in commedia dell’arte—and that’s in evidence in Arlecchino. Mnouchkine, in contrast, re-envisioned the Greek plays that tell the story of the House of Atreus as quasi-Kathakali dramas for Les Atrides and reset Tartuffe in the Middle East. Strehler guided the Piccolo for 50 years; In the theater, that’s a lifetime of leadership.

The Piccolo Teatro ‘s three-hour production of Arlecchino, originally staged by Strehler in 1947, is his take on Goldoni’s 1743 farce, The Servant of Two Masters—itself an adaptation from the previous century’s commedia dell’arte scenarios. Strehler stripped the text down to allow more improvising by the cast, returning the play to its commedia roots. (I’m going to assume a certain familiarity, if not with Goldoni’s classic, then the basic facts of commedia. Like that genre, the plot of Arlecchino is virtually irrelevant—just a frame to hang hi-jinks and verbal play on—so I won’t bother to recount it. Suffice it to say that it involves mistaken identities, scheming servants, plotting parents, separated lovers, and everything, in fact—as someone once said—that makes life worth living! From what I gather, both from reading reports and watching, the improvisation came during rehearsals and conception. The performances are choreographed tightly and, obviously, verbal improv wouldn’t allow the supertitles to follow the dialogue closely, which they apparently did.) In order to focus attention on the lead character, Strehler slightly renamed the play, which has been in the Piccolo’s repertoire for nearly 60 years (and over 2000 performances in 40 countries, according to their count). This production has been staged by Ferruccio Soleri, who’s played Arlecchino for more than four decades and, at 75, is still doing it. That’s one of the most remarkable aspects of this event—Soleri, under his mask, takes on the frisky, scheming clown like a man of . . . oh, I don’t know, maybe 35 at the most. He’s astounding, to put it mildly. (I had read Charles Isherwood’s 22 July review in the New York Times beforehand, so I knew Soleri was 75, but when he took off his mask at the curtain call, it was still a mini-shock. I had really forgotten while he was working how old he was.) The whole cast, as a matter of fact, is perfect. (There’s one guy—Paolo Calabresi, who plays Il Dottore—who I swear is either a giant or the rest of the cast is shrimps. He looks immense. I’d guess his huge belly is padding, but he isn’t wearing stilts or lifts, so his height is real, and he towers over everyone else on stage!) And the concept of reproducing commedia, with its little street stage (representing the commedia wagon bed), flat painted scenery, the actors “off stage” sitting or standing on the Alice Tully Hall stage to the right or left of the commedia stage as they awaited their entrances, the musicians and stage hands mostly visible—and sometimes engaging the actors in arguments when something doesn’t go “right”—the inserted lazzi, and the songs into which the actors break at the drop of a hat during scene changes, is delightful and, from my limited knowledge of theater history, wonderfully accurate.

I’m going to take a short (?) side trip here and delve into a topic Isherwood brought up in his review: the connection of commedia, especially as depicted here, with contemporary comedy. If you don’t already know it, or haven’t really seen it beyond reading about it in some theater history treatise, you can absolutely see where our common comic practices on TV and on stage originated. Isherwood mentions Homer Simpson, but I don’t watch that so I can only take his word for the reflection—but Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Chaplin, Martin and Lewis, Peter Sellers, Monty Python, Laugh-In, That Was The Week That Was, and Saturday Night Live: they’re all in there. This production even makes liberal use of an actual slapstick, the comic device (that dates back to Roman comedy, I think—a progenitor of commedia) that gave its name to a whole genre of modern (?) Western silliness. (The circus clown is, of course, a direct descendant of the zanni Harlequin/Arlecchino, followed by the Red Skeltons, Jackie Gleasons, Jerry Lewises, Lucille Balls, Carol Burnetts, Jim Carreys, among others After watching Soleri, I’m also convinced that Chico Marx was Arlecchino’s great-great-great-. . .-grandson! Not to mention Ed Norton and even Barney Fife—who were more like his great-great-great-grandnephews.) What’s amazing is that it’s still all hilarious! I’m not even a great lover of clowns—none of those performers I just listed are favorites of mine (except maybe Burnett)—and even though you know what’s coming most of the time—the routines haven’t changed in centuries—the execution by true masters like Soleri makes them seem fresh and surprising, even though they’re really not. Possibly the funniest scene in the play—one you could easily imagine Chaplin doing—is the one in which Arlecchino simultaneously serves separate dinners to his two masters at Brighella’s tavern. Soleri juggles the dishes and trays, tumbles and pratfalls, balances and dances in every direction, dodging the tavern keeper and his servants—never spilling a drop or dropping a platter! (It gives entirely new meaning to what we used to call at summer camp “running the biddie”!)

I made a brief reference above to the set, which is sort of bifurcated. The Piccolo Teatro’s set (designed by Ezio Frigerio) is an evocation of a town square, not quite realistically presented—there are awnings which resemble birds’ wings or ships’ sails—in the middle of which is a small raised platform that is the commedia playing area. At the rear of the platform is a frame on which are hung four pairs of painted curtains which represent another town piazza with the front entrances of several houses (Il Dottore’s and Pantalone’s), a large room in Panatolone’s house, the interior of Brighella’s tavern, and a Venetian street by a canal. As the scenes change, the stage hands simply step up on the platform and draw back or close the appropriate drapes to reveal the new locale. Off the sides of the platform, on the original Tully Hall stage, are waiting areas where the actors prepare for their entrances, the stage hands idle until they’re needed, and the musicians sit with their instruments. (There’s also an old fellow sitting stage right with a large book, obviously the text of the play or the instructions for the scenario. He’s either supposed to be Goldoni or a prompter—Michael Feingold in the Village Voice says he’s the prompter; I don’t recall that the commedians used a prompter, but never mind—and he occasionally got into disputes with the actors and others. It was an innocuous gag and just added to the general whirl of activity that included, but wasn’t limited to, the action on the platform.) Props are minimal—only what is actually used in the scene, no decorative elements beyond the painted drapes. “Decor” is painted onto the drapes, which looked to me to be modeled on 18th-century settings (Goldoni’s period) rather than 16th- or 17th-century (commedia’s period). The costumes, from what I could judge, are also early or mid-18th-century. Arlecchino, of course, wears his customary diamond-patterned patchwork outfit (an article on Soleri says he goes through three of them each show because of the sweat); all the comic male characters wear commedia masks, though only Arlecchino wears his all the time. (That’s, of course, why it was such a shock to see Soleri’s face at the curtain call.)

You may have noticed that I’ve focused on the physical aspects of the performance and haven’t said anything about the verbal comedy. That’s because that’s where the problem lay for me. It wasn’t the company’s fault, really—they spoke Italian, which I don’t understand, but that’s their language. The difficulty was in the supertitles and the auditorium configuration. I couldn’t read the titles from my seat without missing what was happening on stage entirely—it was physically impossible. There was only one title screen—up on the proscenium arch, right in the center. I was sitting fairly close to the stage, but over on house right. Alice Tully Hall is really a concert stage, and it has a wide stage with a very pronounced curve to it so that the house right and left seats are at about a 45° angle from the center of the stage. (Think of trying to watch a TV screen from the side.) Between the height above the stage and the angle of my view, reading the titles meant straining so much that I’d never get them read in time to look back at the stage to see what anyone was doing. So I decided to pay attention to the physical work, rely on the synopsis and my knowledge of the play and commedia to clue me in to what was going on, and ignore the actual dialogue. It wasn’t a completely satisfactory trade-off because I know that commedia includes a lot of jokes and other verbal play which I missed (assuming they would have even translated into English, which I supposed is problematical—though one review suggested that all the humor was replicated), and I wish that Lincoln Center, or whoever made this decision, had put screens at the sides and/or on the front of the stage (as several productions have done at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). I can understand why an interpreter wouldn’t have worked—the dialogue came too fast—but additional screens wouldn’t have been an imposition, especially since the performing area was confined to the center of the Alice Tully stage; the rest of the space was “off stage” and would not have been hampered by a screen placed at the outer edges of the proscenium.

24 July 2012

'Famine' (Lincoln Center Festival 2012)

Among the greatest pleasures of living in New York City are the city’s big, annual international theater festivals like the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave and the Lincoln Center Festival, and the opportunities they provide to see theater work from all over the globe. Anywhere else that I know of—Edinburgh is a notable exception—theatergoers have to trust that some important company from Moscow, Tokyo, or Sydney will make a tour and stop in their city. It’s haphazard and only select troupes make the stop every few years. Here, we get some companies nearly every season and others that come along as a rare treat, but we get a wide selection every year. And we still get the one-off tours as well! (Not to forget the smaller shows, too: with the New York International Fringe Festival that occupies lower Manhattan for several weeks in the summer, we get to see productions of small companies from across the U.S. and around the world and the New York Musical Theatre Festival brings in musical plays from a wide variety of sources, too.)

My frequent theater friend, Diana, and I selected several performances in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival (5 July to 5 August in spaces all over the Lincoln Center neighborhood) but the event’s popularity foiled our complete plans and we could only book one play this season. (Diana and I both had some scheduling conflicts that reduced our choices as well.) So on Thursday evening, 12 July, we met at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, just south and west of Lincoln Center’s campus, to see one of the three plays in DruidMurphy, a triplet of performances from the Druid Theatre Company of Galway. The three plays, Conversations on a Homecoming (1985), A Whistle in the Dark (1961), and Famine (1968), all by Tom Murphy, weren't written together (director Garry Hynes doesn’t want them to be called a trilogy), but they are linked by the theme of Irish emigration. The company calls DruidMurphy “a story both of those who went and those who were left behind” and the three plays cover a span of years from the 1840s to the 1970s.

The Druid Theatre Company, the first Irish professional theater based outside Dublin, was founded in Galway in 1975 by Garry Hynes, Mick Lally, and Marie Mullen, graduates of the National University of Ireland, Galway. Hynes became the first artistic director, until 1991 and then again from 1995; she’s also the stage director of DruidMurphy. The troupe’s home base is a once-abandoned, derelict part of the city where Druid presents work at its own theatre on Druid Lane as well as touring extensively around Ireland and the globe. (DruidMurphy, which previously appeared in London in June, returns to Ireland for several tour stops until it recrosses the Atlantic for performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington in October.) In 2009, for instance, Druid toured to Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. Among the playwrights whose works Druid has presented are Enda Walsh (The New Electric Ballroom; Penelope), Martin McDonagh (The Cripple of Inishmaan; The Beauty Queen of Leenane), and Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night). The theater has a playwriting program intended to promote new plays, but they are also dedicated to “reinvigorating” the classics. DruidSynge, composed of six plays by late-19th- and early-20th-century dramatist John Millington Synge, was presented at Lincoln Center in 2006, for instance, and the company staged Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie at Lincoln Center last summer. The concept for DruidMurphy, which has a cast of 16 and runs about 9½ hours if you see it in a one-day marathon, began in 2009 and gestated in the mind of Garry Hynes for three years. It débuted at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway on 23 May 2012 and had its London première at the Hampstead Theatre on 23 June as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Lincoln Center performances are the collection’s U.S. première.

Thomas Bernard Murphy, the youngest of ten children, was born in 1935 in Tuam, a town of fewer than 3,000 people in County Galway. He wrote for the local amateur drama society while working as an apprentice at the town’s sugar refinery. A Whistle in the Dark, the playwright’s first full-length work, was produced in London in 1961 when the famed Abbey Theatre of Dublin rejected it, declaring, according to the New York Times, that “no characters such as these exist.” Following Whistle, Murphy moved to London and wrote for TV and the movies. After a handful of other plays, including Famine, Murphy returned to Ireland in 1970. His work, which totals more than two dozen plays, was often compared to the Angry Young Men of British theater—John Osborne and Edward Bond—but when John Lahr was at the Village Voice (he’s now at the New Yorker), the reviewer observed the similarities to a different British writer: Harold Pinter. (Current Voice writer Alexis Soloski made this comparison as well in her review of DruidMurphy, while a couple of other reviewers have invoked African-American playwright August Wilson.) But the writer’s style is varied: some of his plays are naturalistic, some surreal, some lyrical, and some combine aspects of several styles. Murphy, however, has the reputation of being, as one Irish novelist phrased it, “the writer whom other Irish writers most admire.” Nonetheless, compared to McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Synge, Samuel Beckett, and Brian Friel, it seems the 77-year-old playwright is seldom produced in the U.S.

Diana and I chose to see Famine, the last (and longest) of the three performances but the one set earliest. First staged at Dublin's Peacock Theatre in 1968, the play is set in western Ireland’s County Mayo in 1846 during the worst period in the history of Ireland. In the village of Glanconnor, the second crop of potatoes has failed and the tenant farmers now face the prospect of starvation. The British government (all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom then; the Irish Free State wasn’t established in the south until 1922) refuses to aid the farmers, denying even that there is a famine, and the English and Anglo-Irish landowners promise help only to tenants who agree to emigrate to Canada. Family head and village elder John Connor, for whose family the town’s named, is in the midst of widespread starvation and poverty and he must do “what’s right” for his neighbors, his family, God, and, most importantly, himself. In 12 continuously horrendous scenes, Murphy depicts the Irish potato famine as the incident that triggered a massive exodus—encouraged and abetted by the English and Anglo-Irish landholders who wanted to reassert control of their land from the tenant farmers and use it to graze lower-maintenance sheep—that depleted the Irish population by nearly two million people. (The action of Ireland’s overlords also had the benefit of eliminating a large number of troublesome Irish Catholics, an outcome greatly desired by the Protestant English and Anglo-Irish.) Connor must choose, both for himself and his fellow villagers who will follow his lead, whether to stay on their farms, facing almost certain starvation and death, the annihilation of their families and the very traces of their presence on Earth, or to flee in the “coffin ships” to an unknown fate in a strange land thousands of miles away, not even knowing if they’ll be welcome much less provided for. As in all of Murphy’s works, as I understand his thematic focus from other reports, Famine explores the notion of “home”—what it is, what it means, where it takes you. Does it even exist?

While violence is at the core of most of Murphy’s plays, the brutality in Famine is largely of the “spiritual plane,” as a local Tuam writer put it: “it is the violence done to a people, and by extension to a national psyche, by repression, hunger, eviction and starvation.” (There are, nonetheless, several intense instances of the ordinary kind of violence as well, including one that’s as horrendous as any I’ve ever seen on stage.) “While I was researching ‘Famine,’” recalls Murphy, “I asked myself, ‘Am I a student of famine or a victim of famine?’ I finally decided that I was a victim, and it was from that viewpoint that I wrote it.” Our choice turned out to have been the bleakest of the three-play repertory.

DruidMurphy was presented at the Lincoln Center Festival from 5 to 14 July, with each play being offered separately on successive evenings and the then the cycle was repeated. (There were also two dates on which spectators could see all three plays in one marathon viewing, starting at 1 p.m. and ending, after a half-hour intermission and an hour-and-a-half dinner break, at 10:20.) Of the other two plays in the series Hynes assembled for DruidMurphy, Conversations on a Homecoming, set in the mid-1970s, recounts a 10-year reunion of old friends, now all disillusioned and bitter, in a County Galway pub, celebrating the sudden return of a would-be actor from a failed attempt to make it in New York. Set in 1960, A Whistle in the Dark, written when Murphy was only 25, is about an Irish emigrant and his non-Irish wife living in Coventry, England, whose home is invaded by his brutal and sadistic father and brothers. The family draws the young man back into its thuggish ways with violent results. (Murphy’s said he revisited two of the plays, Conversations and Whistle, and made some changes for the Druid presentation. He doesn’t seem to have reworked Famine, though I can’t be certain.)

It looks like Diana and I didn’t choose well. By all accounts, the other two plays are more accessible and because the acting was universally lovely and sensitive, another example might have been a better experience. (Not knowing Murphy’s work or, really, the work of Druid, we didn’t want to commit to three plays.) “Bleak” was the word most reviews and descriptions of Famine used and it’s right on. The other descriptor should have been “unrelentingly” because the grimness never lets up. The first scene is a wake for a daughter of John Connor who'd clearly died from the effects of the famine (a million Irish died from it or from illnesses caused by it), and the play only gets more desolate. Only one scene of the 12 has a different tone—not what you’d call happy, by any means, but at least it attacks the issue from a different angle; the other 11 are of a single oppressive note. Though the plot advances slightly over the two hours and 50 minutes of playing time—the final act toward which the story leads is the lose-lose decision of Connor whether to emigrate or not—every other scene is the same. As this was only Murphy’s second full-length play, I wonder if he was trying to communicate the unrelenting bleakness of the historical event, its devastating effect on the Irish people, and tried to put that directly on stage without seeing that there’s a disconnect between the reality of the history and the demands of theatre. Whatever the reason, Famine wore on me to the extent that I couldn’t get into it for more than a few minutes at a time—I kept dropping out until I forced myself to pay attention again—and I couldn’t get a feeling of empathy or even sympathy for the characters even though it was obvious that they were suffering prodigiously. Some reports, such as the New York Times’s Charles Isherwood’s review, suggested that the remoteness of the time makes the play less accessible than the other two, though we manage to get into many other plays set in distant times and places. I, however, blame my problem entirely on what the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli described as the play’s “uncompromisingly grim” quality, and it ended up being exceedingly enervating.

Not only were the tone and theme of each scene (except that one at the end of the first act, “The Relief Committee”) the same, but the lighting was a dim, twilight level all the way through the production. As the audience was still taking their seats before the play, two figures came on stage—there was no curtain—at about five minutes before the wake scene started. A very tall man (whom I later decided was Brian Doherty, who portrays Connor and towers over the rest of the cast) turned and left a small, white-haired old woman (probably Marie Mullen, who plays Connor’s mother, Sinéad) to stand silently and motionlessly in the center of the set. This occurred in what I thought was the pre-set, but the lights, as designed by Chris Davey, never got brighter outside “The Relief Committee”: it was always gloomy and shadowy. The sun, it seems, never shone on Glanconnor, Ireland, in 1846.

Francis O’Connor’s setting, a unified concept with elements of suggested Realism (the rows of potato plants growing along the apron of the Lynch’s proscenium stage, a hill of barren dirt rising in the up-stage left corner of the set), was mostly Expressionistic, especially as aided by Davey’s shadowy lighting. A patchwork wall of corrugated metal panels formed the rear of the set, with a rectangular doorway cut into it at stage right. Just below the door in the corrugated wall, a tall piece of grey wall stood, a sort of conventional blind that marked a change of location: when characters exited the downstage area to go someplace more distant but represented on another part of the stage, going around the free-standing panel symbolized that they’d covered some ground. While the acting was all naturalistic, the design was a fusion—except Joan O’Clery’s costumes, which were entirely naturalist, though with what I’d call an edge. The tenant farmers of Glanconnor village were dressed in tatters that barely hung on their bodies, especially the women and children (one reviewer described them as “looking like . . . zombies”) while the Relief Committee—all English or Anglo-Irish: a justice of the peace, a priest, a landowning army captain, a merchant, and a landlord—wore the spiffiest, cleanest, most pristine attire imaginable. While the farmers wore rags not possible outside of a Dickens tale, the toffs who were charged with their rescue had on clothes not only freshly dry-cleaned, but just out of the box! (This was the scene that was also brightly lit and, though the characters are hardly admirable, they were played with high energy and self-confidence.)

The physical production wasn’t the only aspect of Famine that demonstrated this mix of Naturalism and Expressionism. For the most part—all the dialogue scenes—the actors behaved naturalistically, even with Murphy’s frequently lyrical use of Irish-accented lines. (That accent was “thick as Guinness,” wrote Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News—on top of the rural colloquialisms. If the company modified the dialect for American ears, I couldn’t tell. The Relief Committee, including the Irish characters, all spoke with upper-class English accents.) Hynes incorporated, however, numerous stylized actions within the naturalistic behavior, such as bodies, presumably of the starved peasants, sliding slowly out of the wings at the end of “The Relief Committee,” or Connor’s little son, Donaill (Joseph Ward), crawling under the conference table at the start of that scene and sitting there wordlessly throughout as an indictment of the ineffectual and selfish actions of the officials. (I don’t know if these bits are indicated in Murphy’s script or were the invention of the director. The same, of course, is true of the set design.) The play, in fact, began with a stylized scene as part of the wake: a village woman (Treasa Ní Mhiolláin) started the play proper (after that silent preamble) by keening as each of the mourners arrived and exchanged a ritualized greeting with those already assembled. This occurred as a more naturalistic scene took place slightly down stage in what appeared to be a different location. Though I don’t know if all this stylistic variation is part of Murphy’s script or had been developed in the performance text by Hynes, the disparate aspects only rarely seemed to clash.

Druid’s acting company is truly remarkable. As hard as I found it to keep engaged in the play, I can’t fault the stage work of the cast. I’d really like to see this company in a different play such as one of the Synges in the 2006 series or last year’s O’Casey. It’s impossible to select one or two performances to praise, not only because the cast worked as a magnificent ensemble, building an acting environment to which they all contributed, but simply because they were all so equally accomplished that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish among them. I will spotlight one performance, though, but only because the actor had to adopt a physical impediment that must have been exceedingly hard. Aaron Monaghan as Mickeleen O’Leary, a crippled villager, bustled about the uneven terrain in what looked like mismatched forearm crutches as if he were a four-legged spider. (I kept getting the image of the Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films.) The actor’s physical work was astonishing—and amazingly compelling—but it never diminished Monaghan’s inner characterization, which was as total and constant as those of his castmates. Even though many of the cast took on multiple roles, they all established strong, consistent, and believable characters that never descended into stereotype or caricature. If it weren’t for the play’s unrelieved desolation, I’d never have been able to take my eyes off this ensemble, watching as they wove the cloth of this little community. Long-time readers of ROT will remember that this kind of acting thoroughly thrills me, as I explained in “Ensembles” (9 August 2010 on the blog).

The press was mostly complimentary in the same vein that I’ve been: that Druid’s acting was superb and that the achievement of bringing Murphy to the attention of New York audiences in such a high-profile way is laudatory. Most reviewers praised the whole series, reserving their greatest approval for the first two plays that I didn’t see and finding difficulties with Famine. For instance, Matt Windman wrote in AM New York that “‘DruidMurphy’ makes for an exceptional theatrical experience that is captivating despite offering endless hours of gloom and doom” but Soloski of the Voice advised that Famine, “with the political overwhelming the personal in many of the scenes,” is the “most complex, and yet least compelling offering in the cycle.” In Variety, Steven Suskin found that “Hynes, her designers and a strong cast of Irish actors makes the marathons exceptional viewing” and praised Famine as “compelling” and “evocative,” but warned that “non-Irish/English patrons at the marathons might have trouble keeping focused.” In Newsday, Linda Winer effused of dramatist Tom Murphy, “It is rare and a bit overwhelming to discover the existence of an artist with a mature and highly individual body of work.” Still, she called Famine “grueling,” but said as the last of the three plays, which Winer saw in the 9½-hour marathon, she found “the unflinching political and natural tragedy reverberates throughout the characters and uneasy national identities of the previous works.” Jason Fitzgerald of Back Stage, calling Famine “a long expressionist montage,” concluded that even though the author “connects the dots from emotional truth to historical and political experience,” it was “memorable but tiring, and Hynes' production can't hide its preciousness.”

In Time Out New York, David Cote described the whole repertory as “devastatingly good” (as well as “hugely ambitious”), but specified that the “semi-Brechtian” Famine was “a difficult sit.” Vincentelli of the Post described DruidMurphy as “easier to admire than to love” and characterized Famine as “nearly three hours of horror.” Dziemianowicz of the News designated “the superbly acted and staged” series as “all bruising works—some more powerfully than others” and agreed that Famine was “grim.” The New Yorker’s Scott Brown, dubbing the series “harrowing works,” noted that Famine was of a “vastly ambitious scale” compared to the other plays and warned that it was “for many reasons, the hardest to watch.” In the Times, Isherwood affirmed that “the plays easily transcend their surface nature as commentary on people of specific times and places” but warned that “‘Famine’ feels diffuse almost to the point of tedium” because, he suggested, “[i]t is easier to enter into the 20th-century worlds of the other plays than it is to engage with the rural Ireland of the 1840s.” The play “has its own rewards,” Isherwood declared, however, and it “never devolves into a dull history lesson or a preachy tract.”

Finally, because of the unique nature and provenance of this presentation, I thought it would be edifying and interesting to see what a local Irish paper thought of DruidMurphy, on the assumption—probably valid, as I think you’ll agree—that its reviewer might have a special sense of this writer and this troupe. (There are two well-known Irish weeklies in New York City, but the Irish Echo hadn’t run a review at the time I wrote this report.) Irish Voice review-writer Cahir O'Doherty, who admitted that “Druid Murphy is not just a highlight of my theater-going year; it’s been the highlight of my theatre-going life,” began his notice with a question:

Did you ever ask yourself how did every Irish town ended up [sic] with at least twenty public houses? Did you ever wonder how the rural landscape from Malin Head to Mizen Head came to be filled with deserted cottages, abandoned workhouses, burial plots, and broken down factories with tiny stone windows that only a crow could squeeze through?


This, O’Doherty explained, is what playwright Murphy has been contemplating over the span of his career: “what the rest of us have blithely overlooked, transfixed by the little details of our own lives.” The arts editor went on to say that the repertory was an “extraordinary mini-retrospective.” “I have never witnessed a more lucid theatrical exploration of the Irish experience on any stage,” O’Doherty pronounced. Famine, he asserted, was “the most shattering work” of the three “intensely provocative productions” and summed up his estimation of DruidMurphy as “the most defining statement on the legacy of the great hunger and its cultural and historical echoes that it has ever been my privilege to witness.”

19 July 2012

'Best Man'

by Kirk Woodward

[The current Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man began preview performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on 6 March 2012 and opened to the press on 1 April. It’s been extended once and is now scheduled to close its limited run on 9 September. It was nominated for a Tony as Best Revival of a Play (and James Earl Jones was also nominated for best actor in a play); the production also received several Drama Desk nominations. The original production ran at the Morosco Theatre from 31 March 1960 to 8 July 1961. It starred Melvyn Douglas, who won a Tony for his performance as William Russell, the challenger to the former president.

[On Thursday, 21 June, frequent
ROT contributor Kirk Woodward attended a performance of the revival and filed the following report. As you’ll see, he recommends it—I’ll let him tell you why exactly—but he has more to say that I’m sure ROT readers and theater enthusiasts will find informative. ~Rick]


It's a commonplace of directing classes that ninety percent of good directing is a good cast. The other ten percent is a good script. Or maybe it's the good script that's ninety percent of directing, and a good cast ten percent. I'm pretty sure the script is the ninety percent. Or maybe not.

In any case, the current Broadway production of Gore Vidal's 1960 Broadway play The Best Man should make its director, Michael Wilson, happy, because it's a strong play with a remarkable original cast: James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormick, John Laroquette, and that's only the front line of actors in this twenty-performer show. (Bergen, McCormack, Butler, and Lansbury were to be replaced by Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos, Kristin Davis and Elizabeth Ashley, respectively, over the course of July.)

It was the cast list – particularly the opportunity to see Angela Lansbury on stage again – that made me pay attention to this revival in the first place. I had more or less overlooked the opening of the play altogether. I'm not sure why. Reviews of the play were mixed but generally positive, particularly for the cast. (Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called the production “sluggish” and the play “quaint.” What Isherwood found dated, Linda Winer in Newsday on the other hand found “pertinent and as boldly impertinent as the daily machinations in our latest mud-fight to the White House.”)

Perhaps I didn't pay attention to the play because it's a limited run. It was originally scheduled to close on July 1; that date has now been moved out to September 9. I recommend that you take advantage of the extension to see the play if you haven’t. It's worth it.

One reason I say this is that, as I hinted above, playwriting, affected by economic considerations like everything else, has frequently constricted its vision to make plays more financially viable for producing organizations. No doubt producers still look for promising properties of all sorts, but the idea of a two-act, two character play on a bare stage probably would not depress them, and today's playwright who submits a new script that requires twenty actors is a brave soul.

The Best Man by contrast is a three act play with at least two major sets, both realistic, and we probably ought to take advantage of opportunities to see plays like this, since for a number of decades they were standard for the American theater. (Think, for example, of the plays of Kaufman and Hart.) There is something to be said for a show with a lot of actors on stage, doing a lot of acting.

But Vidal's play is not routine American theatrical fare, any more than Vidal (whose other Broadway success is Visit to a Small Planet) is a routine American writer. His acerbic voice has been prominent in novels and essays, not to mention television appearances, for years. However, The Best Man, although a jibe at American political life, is not a cheap shot. What's more, Isherwood’s review notwithstanding, politics is not all that the play is about.

A brief summary: the play takes place at the 1960 presidential nominating convention of an unnamed political party, and focuses on two of the three leading candidates for nomination, William Russell (played by John Larroquette) and Joseph Cantwell (significantly named, and played by Eric McCormack). (The third candidate is a nonentity and is hardly mentioned.)

Russell, formerly a governor and Secretary of State, resembles Adlai Stevenson (who is mentioned in the play) a bit in the sense that he wants to maintain as much integrity as it is possible to maintain in politics.

Cantwell, on the other hand, is presented from the start as the worst sort of opportunistic American politician, a man without conviction who talks constantly about his convictions, a man without love for anything except himself who presents himself as full of love for his country, a man with a justification for everything while he is doing the most irresponsible things. (If that portrait reminds you of anyone today, well, I didn't say it.)

In the play we see the efforts of the two candidates to gain the endorsement of a former president (James Earl Jones) and a prominent Southern committeewoman (Angela Lansbury). We also see Cantwell attempt a deadly maneuver in an attempt to force Russell to quit the race.

Obviously the subject at hand in The Best Man is political power, and Vidal has plenty to say on the subject. He points to the evil behavior we see in the play – of a kind by no means unthinkable in any election. Just as important, however, is Vidal's contention that there are no perfect, or even reasonably perfect, candidates. The search for such a candidate, he suggests, is a huge mistake. Looking for an ideal president can only lead to picking a bad one. We need to select the lesser of evils for President, he says, because there is no other choice. "The best man" is a relative, not an absolute, term.

Presenting this view of politics in itself would be a public service. However, Vidal is after bigger game than just a shot at the American political system. The Best Man at its heart is a presentation of the famous existential dilemma most familiarly stated by Camus: If there is no God – and the play rules God out of the discussion early – then why bother to be good?

The play presents several possible answers to this question, but mostly batted away by the powerful personality who is former President Arthur Hockstader. It's all about power, Hockstader says, and you have to exercise it, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. The existential answer is that a person has to choose. Existentially speaking, there is no other answer.

When I refer to the character of President Hockstader as powerful, I’m clearly being influenced by the performance of the redoubtable James Earl Jones in the role. His Hockstader is boisterous, profane, earthy, unpredictable, a force to reckon with. How much of this description is due to Vidal's script and how much to Jones' performance I can't say, not having read the script, but there's no question that this wonderful actor makes the most of everything in the role and then some.

For example, I can imagine his remark that his image didn't join the others on Mt. Rushmore might be delivered in a semi-apologetic, rueful fashion. Jones delivers the line with a substantial pause, followed by a virtual explosion of the remark indicating, among other things, glee that he knows perfectly well what his own strengths and weaknesses are. Appropriately, Jones had been nominated this year for a Tony Award for his performance.

But all the performers in this play bring much more than just reputations to the role. Larouquette fills his character with a deep, almost guilty, awareness of his own shortcomings. McCormick, who has proven to be an extremely able stage actor, makes Cantwell into an almost irresistible snake, practically the original Tempter. Candice Bergen, often given stern, snippy roles, plays a woman who wishes she were anyplace except where politics has put her. And Angela Lansbury, now eighty-six years old, acts with the energy of a much younger person, and with a vocal technique to be envied – from my seat in the rear balcony, she sounded almost as though she were up there with us.

A play like The Best Man has room for numerous fine smaller roles. I was amazed to see the small role of a senator played by the always welcome Dakin Matthews, a familiar face on TV and the stage. Donna Hanover, the TV personality and former wife of Rudy Giuliani, appears, and so do the talented and stalwart Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, and Mark Blum. I counted something like a dozen Tony awards and nominations among the cast, and goodness knows how many Oscars and Emmys.

So the director, Michael Wilson, does pretty well in that ninety-percent, ten-percent idea I alluded to at the beginning of this piece. Wilson also has the successful Broadway director’s gift of leading the cast to get the most out of their lines, often with unexpected readings that in particular bring out the humor of the piece. I saw only one flaw in the direction of the show, and it may not be his fault: the cast begins to play the ending of the show too early. This fault may result not from direction, though, but from the way the actors have played the show as the run has progressed. Slowing down at the end of the play is a frequent temptation for a cast.

If only for the performance of James Earl Jones, The Best Man would be a show to see. But it offers much, much more.

[I feel I have to acknowledge something here while publishing Kirk’s first article for ROT since “Noel, Noel” on 24 March. On Monday, 2 April, Pat Woodward, Kirk’s dear wife of 28 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 62. I’ve been trying to find a way to address Pat’s passing on ROT for months now, and I really haven’t found one that satisfies me. So I’m just going to acknowledge it here. However late it may be, I expect there will be a more substantial remembrance of this devoted theater person and special woman on ROT in the near future, but for now, “Good night, sweet Pat, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” ~Rick]

14 July 2012

'Memphis' (National Tour, Washington, D.C.)

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who reads ROT even occasionally that I’m old enough to remember the early days of rock ’n’ roll. I was growing up in Washington when the wave hit, and in my memory it struck suddenly and just took over the AM radio dial. I woke up for school to “Rock Around the Clock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” on my clock radio, and came home to turn the radio on again to hear “Chantilly Lace” or “Blue Moon.” I’d painted a little green dot on the dial of my transistor radio (the linear ancestor of the iPod, in a manner of thinking) to mark where I could find WEAM (“The WEAM Team,” at 1390 on the AM dial), the AM station to which my friends and I all listened, so I could always find it instantly. I’d turn on the TV to watch American Bandstand every afternoon; one of my friends even got to be on the show. In the latter part of the decade, my dad bought a part interest in a Top 40 station in Little Rock (KGHI, which became KAJI to conform with its local pronunciation, broadcasting at 1250) and even listened to our hometown rock ’n’ roll stations in the car to hear what was going on in the field. He’d also go out to Little Rock and come home with the dupes from the station, so I had the best collection of R ’n’ R 45’s in my class (or probably anywhere else in D.C.). If a song was on a play list, I had it! I was 11 and 12 by this time, and my dance parties were the best in my middle school! I even loaned many of my 45’s to the school for the sock hops (remember those?) we had in the gym in those days. I was totally caught up in the rock ’n’ roll tide, as were almost all my friends and schoolmates.

Of course, I never witnessed the actual birth pangs of the new music, I just experienced the baby in its infancy. I know now, though, how the music of my pre-teen and teen years came to be, and I happened to be living in Europe when the Beatles came along and changed it all. (I was a huge Beatles fan from the moment I heard their first releases through the end of college, when the Fab Four broke up.) Watching the musical Memphis, the 2010 Tony-winner for best musical, best book (Joe DiPietro), best score (David Bryan and DiPietro), and best orchestrations (Daryl Waters and Bryan), plus a passel of other nominations and Drama Desk Awards, in its Washington stop on the National Tour, an awful lot of my musical childhood came back to me in a rush. It’s a tad hard to separate the personal nostalgia from the current musical-theater experience, but I’ll give it a try. 


I was particularly caught up emotionally when the play presented singers or groups that are supposed to be recording artists of the time (as opposed to the songs that are about the play’s plot and characters). I heard echoes of Little Richard and Chubby Checker and, I think, Diana Ross (who really came along a little later, so my ear may have been miscalibrated). I don’t know if composer Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi, intended to create those echoes or if I just heard them on my own because the play’s environment evoked the era and the milieu for me. (It may be partly because the opening set piece is a giant AM radio dial, a motif often repeated throughout the production. It made me go back immediately to my middle school days, listening to rock ’n’ roll on the radio. We really did walk around sometimes with portable radios squeezed up against our ears. No ear buds yet in the mid-’50s!)

That’s all sort of what Memphis was about for me when my mother and I took in the Saturday matinee performance in the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on 23 June. It was the first chance I had to see the play since it opened on Broadway in 2009. (Readers of ROT will recall that my friend and frequent guest-blogger, Kirk Woodward, wrote about being a small investor in Memphis in “Broadway Angel” on 7 September 2010.) Even though the tour had just landed here from Buffalo, it was already substantially sold out and my near-last-minute plan to come to D.C. at the end of the month meant we were way up in the balcony, but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, both theatrical and personal. The Washington performances began on 12 June and ran through 1 July before moving on to Las Vegas, San Diego, and L.A. following the Kennedy Center stop.

After workshopping and trying out in a number of venues around the country (early stagings were at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, and TheatreWorks in Mountainview, California, both in 2003-04; the La Jolla Playhouse in southern California where director Christopher Ashley is artistic director, in 2008; and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater in 2009), Memphis landed at the Shubert Theatre on 23 September 2009 for previews, opening to the press on 19 October. The show has announced its closing for 5 August 2012, mounting up a total of 30 previews and 1,166 regular performances. The critical reception was mixed and, according to the reports, the play never really caught fire with audiences. Still, a run of nearly three years and over 1,000 performances is more than respectable and, were it not for the present-day economics of Broadway, it would have been a box-office hit. (Kirk tells me he’s only about 5% short of recouping his full Memphis investment, which suggests that the whole show’s in a similar state. That, too, is respectable these days. Apparently the current National Tour will not benefit the original production’s bottom line, though the contributions of college and amateur productions are uncertain, and I also don’t know about European and other foreign productions—of which I’m sure there will several because of Memphis’s quintessentially American story and sound.)


The plot of Memphis, suggested by late Broadway producer and screenwriter George W. George, is really two stories, one folded inside the other. (Which of the two is the envelope and which is the filling depends entirely on your perspective and your sentiments. I’ll give my impression and you can extrapolate yours.) To set the scene, the city of Memphis, Tennessee, is to blues and rhythm-and-blues what New Orleans is to jazz and Nashville is to country: it’s the sipapu, the place of emergence, the sacred center. (Okay, I’m overstating a little. But, if you’re a devotee, only a little.) Beale Street is where the true lovers and makers of blues music and its cousin, rhythm-and-blues live, where the purest, realest, and sweetest is. (There was a 2010-2011 cable TV cop series starring Jason Lee, Memphis Beat, which, while not especially outstanding as drama, had the coolest score on television—all current covers or original recordings of blues, R&B, and early rock.) Like jazz, though, this was the music of African Americans, and in the Jim Crow 1950s, that made it both suspect and dangerous to white people. “Race music,” it was called derisively—and ominously. It wasn’t just that it was the music of black people, but if white folks listened to it, it could make them crazy and do evil things. It was dangerous. And out of this dangerous devil music came rock ’n’ roll—essentially when white singers (think Elvis Presley, who used to go to black churches to hear the choirs) began to sing “black” music for white audiences. Memphis depicts the route by which this new sound came out of the Beale Street clubs, almost exclusively owned, run, and patronized by African Americans, invaded the radio waves of the city, forced its way into the record racks of music stores—almost entirely against the will and determination of the middle-aged, middle-class white businessmen who owned them. Why? Because (white) DJ’s like Dewey Phillips, who was an inspiration for the character Huey Calhoun in the musical, began playing the new songs on the radio and the city’s (and then the nation’s) teenagers took to it like a starving man grabs a ham sandwich. These kids took the new music for their own—it was the first real nationwide youth movement at a time when America was inventing the teenager—and demanded record store-owners sell it in their shops and other radio stations play it on their programs, and finally TV channels put it on shows like Bandstand (which soon became American Bandstand on a national sound stage—a phenomenon that’s fictionalized in Memphis) and its clones and copies. This all happened often against the determinations, sometimes virulent, of the white establishment in the schools, churches, town halls, and homes—and it started in Memphis. This history is laid out in Memphis in a softer version than it really was—the racism and violence is shown but soft-pedaled and sanitized—as Huey (Bryan Fenkart), basically a flop at everything he tries (he’s a high school dropout who, he says, can’t even spell ‘TV’) surreptitiously introduces the new sound in the record department of his uncle’s department store and then moves on to take over the airwaves by presenting the music in defiance of his boss’s orders.

(In the scene where Huey hijacks the sound booth at a radio station when the regular DJ, who played crooners like Perry Como, takes a break, the upstart locks himself in the booth and barricades it against the owner, the DJ, and the janitor. Back when my father owned part of KAJI, a year or two after the start of the play, and the station was shifting from easy listening to Top 40 rock, one DJ announced on the air that he’d taken over the station, padlocked the doors, and would be playing the same song over and over. It was a stunt, of course, but no one outside knew that—the station management got into a little trouble because the police were called—and I was reminded of this episode while that scene played out. The song the DJ played, by the way, was a specialty recording called “Chinese Bandits” which was a tribute to a defensive squad on the 1958 LSU football team. The gag song became a regional number-one hit for a short time as a result of the stunt.)

Within this music history-lite is a simple love story—complicated by the fact that it’s interracial in segregated Memphis. Nearly alone among white Memphians in his attraction to the black music, Huey goes into Delray’s, an underground blues club on Beale Street where the singer is Felicia Farrell, Delray’s beautiful sister. At first, Huey goes for the music, but he’s increasingly drawn to Felicia (Felicia Boswell) and, in the face of disapproval from all quarters, including his own mother and Felicia’s club-owner brother, sets out to break through her resistance. Of course, he wins her over and Mama Calhoun (Julie Johnson) and Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington) reluctantly drop their opposition. Huey makes Felicia a local star but faces hostility from white folks who see his music and his crossing of the racial lines as a threat. He nevertheless becomes the most popular DJ in town because of his young, white fans, launching a Bandstand-like television music show. He’s courted by the TV producer of a proposed national dance show—“Richard” Clark is the competition for the gig—but when Huey’s offered the job, the New York TV man explains that his show’s dancers, who are all black, will have to be replaced with white performers and he will have to keep his relationship with Felicia, to whom he’s now engaged, on the DL. In true musical-theater form, Huey decides that he belongs in Memphis because Memphis is in him, and he chooses not to go to New York and change his life to suit some . . . well, suits. (And that’s how Dick Clark got to be the World’s Oldest Teenager!)

In both parts of the plot, it’s Huey’s sincerity and commitment that drives the outcome. No one wants him to play that race music, but he does and the kids love it. Delray and the denizens of his club don’t understand why a white kid would cross over to Beale Street to hear their music, but he shows them he truly loves the sound and gets it, so they grudgingly let him hang around. When he promises to get them and their music on the air, they don’t believe him, but when he succeeds, they all latch on to his rising star and embrace his TV show. He even sort of wins over the white record-sellers and station-owners: they resist playing the black music in their stores and on their airwaves, but when the kids start buying up the records and boosting the sales of the sponsors’ merchandise, they avidly go along for the commercial benefit. Delray and Mama Calhoun don’t want Huey to date Felicia—more because it might be hazardous to one or both of them, not so much because they’re separatists: it’s one of the soft-pedaling aspects I mentioned—but he proves his love and they reluctantly back off. So when the DJ forgoes the move to New York City when he learns it means abandoning the people who make the music he loves, we get the impression it’s not because he’s a small-town guy who can’t hack the big-city scene, the bumbler who failed at everything until the music got him: it’s because he’s sincere about not selling out.

If all this sounds a little simplistic, a little too easy, it is. It’s essentially a feel-good story that leaves out all the tension of the real circumstances. (There’s little more than a passing mention, for instance, of the fact that interracial marriages were illegal in most of the South until 1967 when the Supreme Court overturned all the existing anti-miscegenation laws. If Felicia and Huey go to New York, they can be legally married even if they have to keep the marriage quiet; in Memphis, they can’t be married or even live together openly. This gets very little play.) Huey faces one beating by a gang of thugs on the street. In the real world, of course, neither he nor Felicia would be likely to get off so lightly. (The lynching of Emmett Till, who was accused of whistling at a white woman, happened in 1955.) And even in the face of increased sales, I don’t think the establishment businessmen of Memphis would be so ready to put black music and black performers up front this way; I can’t imagine that a Memphis TV station would have ever aired a show with black dancers in the ’50s. It’s a fantasy: Dick Clark shocked America when he integrated the participants on American Bandstand around 1964 after starting out with all white kids on his show. (Black artists could appear, but black kids and white kids couldn’t dance together on national TV.)

Bryan and DiPietro’s music is nice enough, without any truly outstanding number, but I find that in shows about music the way Memphis is that there are two kinds of songs. (I’m not referring here to the distinction between character-based songs and lyrical songs which my friend Kirk Woodward drew in his articles on “Theatrical and Popular Songs,” on ROT on 2 October 2011, and “The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October 2011. As a theater score, all the songs in Memphis are essentially character- or situation-based.) There are what I’ll call “story songs,” which help propel the play’s narrative one way or another, and “performance songs,” which are the songs written to evoke (though sometimes parody) singers and musicians in some kind of presentation—in the case of Memphis, usually a cabaret appearance or a recording. In Memphis, the performance songs are meant to approximate the R&B and rock ’n’ roll songs Huey's promoting (or the white-bread music he's trying to overshadow, such as the amusing “Whitey White and the White-Tones’ ‘Whiter Than You.’”). It may have been my own focus, the same reason that I see the love story as an adjunct of the rock ’n’ roll story rather than the reverse, but I liked the performance songs much better than the story songs. That’s not entirely cut-and-dried. Two story songs stood out for the same reasons that I found the performance songs more compelling—they’re more musically interesting and they each have a different dynamic while the other story songs all seem alike (or at least very similar). Both are by Huey: “The Music of My Soul” is the song in which he demonstrates that the R&B the Delray musicians perform speaks to him, too, the song that makes Delray, Felicia, and the Beale Street club-goers accept him as at least a musical soul mate. That song comes early in the first scene; late in the play, Huey explains why he won’t be going to New York City to win fame and wealth in “Memphis Lives in Me.” Both are big production numbers, but the thing that got me is that they both have real character and personality. (It may be no coincidence, then, that “Memphis Lives” is the principal soundtrack for the show’s TV ads. It’s the musical expression of the play’s theme.)

Christopher Ashley directs the production, which runs 2½ hours with one intermission, with a lot of action—or maybe I should call it motion. Under Ashley’s “efficient” direction, the Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley wrote, “‘Memphis’ never rests.” Everyone’s moving almost all the time and with 21 musical numbers, there’s a great deal of energetic dancing choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. I didn’t find much of the choreography distinguished, just active. The cast, however, executes Trujillo’s uninspired steps with immense verve and skill. (In the Washingtonian, Missy Frederick criticized Trujillo’s dances as not being “natural or spontaneous,” and I think that’s accurate. Still, it’s a far cry from the Broadway première of Footloose in 1998 which was a show about dancing with almost none at all on stage!) On reflection after the show, I wonder if all that movement wasn’t Ashley’s cover for the lack of emotional substance. If everyone’s moving a lot, maybe we won’t notice that no one’s getting really involved beyond lip service. The story often comes right up to the edge of an emotional or psychological precipice—musical, racial, social, political—but it never really jumps off. The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood, in his review of the Broadway première, compared the show to “a cover version of a song you’ve heard done better before,” suggesting that not only have we heard the melody and lyrics before, but this version is less sharp, less surprising, less thrilling than the earlier one. Some of the problem might be in the acting (I began to wonder how different the Broadway actors had been in these roles), but I think it was in the script and the direction. As I said, DiPietro’s book takes each potentially fraught element, from the racial tension to the radical musical shift and the social implications that brought, one notch or two back from a high point. DiPietro seems to have opted for a family version of the times, unlike, say, West Side Story, set in another part of the country at about the same time. (When my dad was with USIA in Germany, the agency responsible for cultural propaganda, the U.S. government wouldn’t sponsor official tours of WSS because it showed our society in a violent and unflattering way. My guess is that Memphis would have passed muster easily.) No one really hates in this show—and we know they really could—and no one ever faces real danger. Huey gets beat up, but he recovers fast, suffers no repercussions, and the incident evaporates from the narrative immediately. It’s a textual set piece.

Huey’s almost too silly to be a serious threat or to serve as a hero. (This is where I first began to wonder if Chad Kimball handled the part any more forcefully than Fenkart.) Fenkart, who understudied the part in New York, behaves like a buffoon, not just an incompetent failure. When his Huey walks into Delray’s, after having stood outside listening to the music, he seems surprised that the club-goers look on with suspicion—as if crossing into the black district were a natural act. He approaches Felicia without any indication he knows this is unacceptable behavior and potentially dangerous. In fact, while it might be clear why Huey’d be attracted to Felicia, it’s not at all evident why she’d be remotely interested in him. His record shop and radio patter is supposed to be charming and disarming, but it comes off more as slightly moronic, like the caricature of a DJ of early rock. Even though all the performances are pitched in that direction, giving me the impression that that’s how Ashley directed the show from the start, Fenkart’s Huey seems to be taking it further and it gets hard to believe that anyone, the teens, the businessmen, or Felicia, would take to him.

There isn’t a lot of chemistry between Fenkart’s Huey and Boswell’s Felicia except that the script says there is. On stage, Huey and Felicia seem to get together because the story needs them to, not because the characters are drawn to each other. Boswell, who played Felicia on Broadway after January 2011, performs the character’s songs well, with a dark, husky voice that works very well in bluesy numbers, but doesn’t present much of a personality in the dialogue scenes. When the singer agrees to see Huey romantically, supposedly a momentous choice that goes against every social taboo and her own reservations, there’s no cataclysm, or even a fraught moment. Boswell’s low-key stage persona is more in line with the rest of the company than is Fenkart’s, but since she’s at the emotional center of the drama, it seems less comprehensible.

I’ve already mentioned the way the script downplays the final acquiescence of Mama and Delray to Huey’s suit of Felicia and the ease with which the businessmen of Memphis drop their opposition to Huey’s playing of race music. That’s all in the script, of course, but none of the actors gives any sense that these are momentous decisions. That’s obviously a directorial choice as much as an acting one since it’s universal, but it makes all the characters less real and believable outside a musical-theater world. Remember that this is the time not only of the Emmett Till lynching, but of Brown v. Board of Education and the Little Rock school desegregation conflict. On the music scene alone, this is when Elvis went on The Ed Sullivan Show and the cameras wouldn’t show him below the waist. But none of that’s part of the Memphis universe, and the characters never acknowledge it.

The actors of the ensemble all execute their parts firmly, though only one breaks out and makes a notable character of what DiPietro wrote. I presume that this is because Ashley kept them all in check or none of them was inspired to go beyond the demands of the part. The standout among the ensemble is Julie Johnson, who mostly plays Mama Calhoun. (She also covers another small role.) As a character, Mama’s dispensable except for one scene. After Huey’s been offered the gig in New York and plans to take Felicia and marry her, she buys into his commitment and enthusiasm and goes on to help convince Delray and his friends with the gospel- and country-infused “Change Don’t Come Easy.” The showstopper is supposed to be “Memphis Lives in Me,” I think, but Johnson kills in her big number: she’s Mama Rose with a soft heart and a little Southern soul, belting like Merman. Mama’s sole reason for being is to do that number, and Johnson nails it. Theatrically, it’s the best moment on the stage.

Physically, the production is top-notch. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are all wonderfully evocative of the time and place (though, in keeping with his other characteristics, Huey is dressed a little like a vaudeville geek) and his dresses for Boswell’s Felicia are downright gorgeous. The two-level sets designed by David Gallo along with his and Shawn Sagady’s projections, atmospherically lit by Howell Binkley, depict the story’s locales and atmosphere nicely and shifted swiftly to allow the fast-moving performance to flow seamlessly and cinematically. Alvin Hough, Jr.’s Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra replicated the sounds of ’50s blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll distinctively, albeit in an appropriately theatricalized form. Along with that oft-repeated motif of the radio dial, the orchestration is perhaps the production element that most propelled me back to my childhood days of listening to these sounds in my bedroom.

Despite the heartening note that Memphis is a relative rarity on Broadway these days: an original musical play that’s neither a retreaded movie or a pastiche of tunes from some artist’s songbook—for which it merits tremendous praise and gratitude—I gather I’m not alone in my criticisms. Charles Isherwood said in his New York Times review of the première, “This slick but formulaic entertainment . . . barely generates enough heat to warp a vinyl record,” and I recall that most New York outlets more or less agreed. Still, the production won the best-musical Tony over Fela!, a much more ambitious theater piece about the Afrobeat performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. (Fela!, also out on a National Tour, will be making a return to Broadway from 9 July until 4 August.)

Of the D.C. presentation, Nelson Pressley declared in the Washington Post that Memphis “doesn’t do much with the ancient terrain of whites getting hip to black music as rock and roll is born.” Noted Pressley, “It hurts the show that the actual love story feels half-baked.” Calling the play a “gawky musical tale,” Jolene Munch Cardoza of the Washington Examiner lamented, “The whole affair could be infinitely more engaging if it didn't feel so contrived and superficial with its one-dimensional characters and cardboard scenery,” pronouncing Memphis “sweet but not soulful.” Washington City Paper’s Rebecca J. Ritzel thought Memphis was “good—just not great,” and wondered how the play won its Tonys. Her answer was that “there are only so many American Theatre Wing voters who like punk rock and Afrobeat. Or, put another way, American Idiot and Fela! split the liberal vote. Memphis, with its original bluesy pop showtunes, was the conservative show left standing.” Still, Ritzel decided, the musical “does manage to break the musical mold in subtler ways” than its Tony competition did.

In a more positive assessment, Doug Rule said, “Memphis the musical tends to surprise people” and, in a backhanded compliment in Metro Weekly, he advised readers to “take a chance on the show, and you'll likely walk away with an appreciation for the way in which Joe DiPietro tells a shopworn tale.” In Washingtonian magazine, Missy Frederick called the plot “fairly conventional” but praised the music as “bluesy and warm.” Overall, Frederick affirmed, Memphis offers “many of the traditional pleasures of the old-fashioned musical.”

Among the blog reviewers, Joel Markowitz saw the show on Broadway before the tour and, declaring, “It’s infectious!” on DC Metro Theater Arts, he proclaimed that “it’s love at first sight all over again!” On the Maryland Theatre Guide, Jennifer Perry wrote that although “Joe DiPietro’s book is hardly revolutionary,” Memphis is “something that should definitely be seen” and the touring production is “not to be missed,” pronounced Blogcritics’ Michelle Alexandria. Observing that “Memphis has an intentional retro feel to it, which is perfect for this distinctly period piece,” Terry Ponick of DC Theatre Scene dubbed it “an odd show in many respects.” “It’s lively, fast-paced, crisp, and professional in every way,” she continued. “But it boasts the flimsiest of plots and character development.” Polnick, however, caught my own response pretty well, concluding that “particularly for audience members who lived through this era, this production, directed by Christopher Ashley, hits all the right nostalgic musical notes.”

In the end, that was the key to this show, at least for me. Despite all my quibbles and caveats—and I believe they’re serious deficiencies from a theatrical perspective—the way Memphis transported me back to the time and place (well, the time: I’ve never been to Memphis) made it a more-than-satisfying theater experience. I didn’t come out singing the score as I used to in the (really) old days (see my confessional ROT article, “A Broadway Baby” on 22 September 2010), but I left with a broad smile on my face and nice, warm feeling in my gut. It is a feel-good show, after all. You see, even though I know now about all the turmoil and strife of the time, if I’m honest, back when I was 8, 9, 10 years old and listening to my radio and my 45’s, all I knew was that these people were making cool music for me—my music, our music, my friends, peers, and I. And, man, I loved it. I did then and I do now. I never thought of it this way—as I said, I’ve never been there—but I guess . . . Memphis lived in me.

09 July 2012

'The Servant of Two Masters' (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2012)

I made a short visit to my mother in Washington, D.C., over the summer solstice and while there, we took in two shows. The first was the revival of Carlo Goldoni’s classic commedia-infused Servant of Two Masters by the winner of the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony, the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (The other performance we saw was the National Tour of the hit Broadway musical Memphis at the Kennedy Center. That ROT report will follow this one at the end of the week.) Commedia dell’arte, the 16th- and 17th-century improvised comedy form that sprang up in Italy virtually out of nowhere—it bears some similarity to the low Roman comedies that were popular entertainment in the decades before the end of the empire, but the gap between the end of the Roman period and the early Renaissance is far too wide for the influence to be direct—is silly, ribald—what Jane Horwitz described as “bawdy—not dirty” in the Washingtonian—and physical. The stories are stock and little more than scenarios upon which the actors—there were no directors or playwrights—could hang slapstick hijinks, caricatures of local figures, jokes, clown routines, acrobatics, and social or political satire. Sophisticated they weren’t, but it took immense skill to pull them off (commedia dell’arte can be translated as ‘comedy of skills’) and keep them rolling from gag to gag (known as lazzi), with rudimentary scenery—they toured and performed on wagon stages set up in streets and squares—few props, basic costumes that were usually symbolic of the stock characters which everyone recognized immediately, and masks that covered the top half of the faces of many of the actors and which were also iconic for certain roles. The success of the commedia troupes soon influenced the contemporary theater in France, finding its way into the plays of Molière and his contemporary comic playwrights, and into England, where its remnants can be seen even today in the Punch and Judy puppet shows popular among children all over the country.

By the 18th century, the power of the commedia troupes was waning, and theatrical practice and taste had refined enough to make the bawdy and coarse stage work of commedia dell’arte less acceptable, especially at court or in court-sponsored performances with the dawn of the Enlightenment. On the Italian stage especially, but all over Europe as well, opera was becoming the favored theatrical form (though the comic operas of Mozart and others borrowed heavily from the commedia and its descendants). The improvised commedia fell out of favor, though the slapstick humor—the very term comes from a common prop of the performances, the slap stick—and stock characters like Harlequin (known in Italian as Arlecchino), the crafty servant in his distinctive diamond-patterned costume; Pantalone, the foolish old man; Il Dottore, the quack who spouted indecipherable Latin; Pierrot and Pierrette, the pastoral lovers; and several others—remained popular with audiences. One way to keep the form alive for audiences was for playwrights to take up the style and the characters and craft scripted plays with them. That way the humor and situations could be repeated but under more control than the anarchic stage of commedia permitted. Among the most accomplished and popular dramatists of the 18th-century was Carlo Goldoni (1707-93), easily one of the most prolific writers of the classic or any other period, with over 300 scripts attributed to his authorship. In 1743, Goldoni assembled several commedia characters and situations in his Il servitore di due padroni, revised a decade later (to formalize the comic action, based on the improvisations the actors devised in the 1743 version). It’s been a staple of theater companies both here and in Europe, including a 1947 interpretation by Giorgio Strehler for his Piccolo Teatro di Milano which is still in the troupe’s repertory even 15 years after Strehler’s death (I saw it at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2005). The current Broadway hit One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean is also based on Servant.

The STC revival of The Servant of Two Masters is an adaptation by playwright Constance Congdon from a translation by Christina Sibul, first presented by Hartford Stage in 1996, directed by Bartlett Sher (renowned now for Lincoln Center’s South Pacific revival, among other productions). The STC staging was mounted originally at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010 under the direction of Christopher Bayes, who played Brighella in the Hartford début. (Bayes, an expert in commedia acting, was the head of Physical Acting at the Yale School of Drama in 2010.) My mother and I caught the STC presentation on Wednesday evening, 20 June, at the Lansburgh Theatre in downtown Washington. The Washington performances started on 15 May, opening to the press on 21 May, and closed on 24 June (after two extensions of just over two weeks). The production has played other cities in the U.S. since New Haven and apparently continues to tour with largely the same cast.

In the wrong hands, modern performances of commedia dell’arte can be tedious, exercises in studied acrobatic gags (Peter Marks described it as “calcified frivolity” in the Washington Post) and hoary lazzi dragged up from the days of vaudeville and golden-age TV variety. “Clever” purveyors throw in current political and pop-culture references—because all theater students know that the Renaissance troupes used the performances to comment on local goings-on and topical scandals and gossip. (At STC, for instance, Nancy Pelosi and Rick Santorum came in for passing mentions, along with a questionable reference to Whitney Houston's death.) Unless the performers are especially talented at improvisation and physical comedy—modern-day zanni (the clownish characters like Harlequin and Scapino) such as, say, Bill Irwin or David Shiner (coming next season, happily, to the other STC, New York’s Signature Theater Company)—making the shtick seem organic and spontaneous, the whole proceeding can feel forced and inauthentic, like the acting, if you’ll pardon the comparison, in porn movies. The Piccolo Teatro company is, of course, well-practiced in the arts of their forebears and the stage work on display in Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters was stunning, probably the closest I’ll ever come to a theatrical trip back in time. (I recall that the supertitles at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall were so far away from the performers that I had to choose either to read the dialogue, spoken in Italian, or watch the action. I chose to watch, and even though I didn’t understand any of what the actors said, I could follow the simple plot and all the lazzi with no problem. I think, even if I’d tried to follow the supertitles instead, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my eyes from the stage work—it was too fascinating and engaging.)

Congdon’s adaptation (or Bayes’s version of it) starts in Italian as two stage hands enter a darkened stage. They open a trunk and tiny lights—perhaps fireflies or stardust, but definitely magic—soar upwards into the fly space and float around the stage, courtesy of lighting designer Chuan-Chi Chan. That makes what follows an enchanted play-within-a-play. Under the spell, we’re transported to Venice and the house of Pantalone (Allen Gilmore) whose daughter, Clarice (Danielle Brooks), was to be married to Federigo Rasponi. But Federigo’s reported dead, confirmed by Brighella (Liam Craig), so Pantalone now promises Clarice to Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen), the infantile son of Il Dottore (Don Darryl Rivera), and the engagement’s proclaimed. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door and Smeraldina (Liz Wisan), Pantalone’s servant, ushers in Truffaldino (Steven Epp), announcing that he’s come on behalf of his master to request an audience. His master is, of all people, Federigo—and the wedding is called off. All isn’t what it appears, of course, since "Federigo" is really Beatrice (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), Federigo’s cross-dressing sister. (“She rides horseback!” declared Brighella earlier.) Beatrice has come to find her lover, Florindo (Jesse J. Perez), who’s responsible for her brother’s death and has fled to Venice. Got all that?

Well, wait—’cause you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The real focus of Servant is Truffaldino, the title character who is a close cousin of Harlequin and essentially behaves like him. Because he’s always hungry, the wily servant agrees impulsively to serve Florindo, who shows up at Brighella’s inn where Federigo/Beatrice is also staying, when his first “master” leaves him too long without a meal. The farce ensues from Truffaldino’s attempts to serve each master without revealing to one that the other exists—along with his continuous attempts to score some vittles. (In the Strehler version, there was a truly hilarious scene where Arlecchino—as Truffaldino was called in that production—serves two completely different dinners to each master in separate dining rooms. This business was only suggested in Congdon’s rendition.) As to which lovers are united and what becomes of Truffaldino, I’ll let you all find out. One hint (no real spoiler, though): This isn’t a tragedy or even a tragicomedy. (The death of Beatrice’s brother at the hand of her lover is pretty much forgotten, except as a plot complication.) Happiness is the goal.

Generally speaking, American actors aren’t heavily trained in physical comedy and commedia style. There are specialty studios and troupes that work in that vein, and some actors are naturally adept at it, but it’s not what we do here very much. Bayes’s cast does an excellent job of performing the lazzi and getting into the world of commedia dell’arte, both in spirit and in body. Bayes didn’t include much acrobatics in his performance text, so I don’t know how skilled the actors are in that arena, but they handled the physical comedy adeptly and the verbal style smoothly. Still, I felt that everyone was trying a little too hard, including Bayes. There weren’t exactly quotation marks around the jokes, but some were pushed forth a bit too earnestly, especially the ones that had obviously been inserted specifically for the Washington audiences (references to Ford’s Theater; snippets of songs from The Music Man, playing at the Arena Stage across town; references to O’Neill’s lo-o-o-ooong Strange Interlude, the previous show at STC earlier in the spring; a joke about congress which included directions to the Capitol, a few blocks from the Lansburgh; and lines about Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, two famous neighborhoods of the Nation’s Capital that are a mile or two above the theater). This kind of jokiness may have started in rehearsals as ad-libs, but in performance they read as practiced and prepared.

Now, while Bayes’s interpretation of Servant was fun and enjoyable, it was very much in the vein of a studied effort. The production was also what Barbara Mackay of the Washington Examiner called “a mixed bag of acting styles and musical styles, a spectacular blurring of the lines between 16th-century Italy and 21st-century America.” She saw that as “its appeal,” and I don’t have a problem with that in theory, but it struck me as carefully selected and approved, not ad-libbed and organic. The actors didn’t look unnatural doing the farce, but the lazzi and the verbal jokes all had the feel of material that had been carefully invented and inserted in the performance text with forethought and deliberation. Commedia was largely improvised and the humor was spontaneous; even when Goldoni formalized the gags, they were still supposed to look as if the actors were making them up as they went along—or, at least, just before they went on stage. I won’t say that Bayes’s cast wasn’t adept with the material, but it didn’t look terribly organic. (In comparison with the Piccolo Teatro staging, it looked downright stiff!) In the case of a face-slap that’s supposed to snowball into a spontaneous, domino-like chain reaction, the routine looked choreographed and set up. Now, of course it has to be set up—we all know that—but it’s not supposed to look like it’s all planned and rehearsed. I can almost picture the Marx Brothers inserting such a routine into one of their movies (I’m way too young to have seen any of their stage shows) and making it look like a crazy accident, even though the Marxes were famous for carefully rehearsing their performances down to the gesture.

At the same time, I guess in order to animate the two-hour-25-minute production (including one intermission), the whole performance was a bit too antic for my taste. I’m not a big fan of clowning (I once reviewed a clown festival and had to admit this up front), so a show that’s mostly geared to showing off clown routines gets old on me fast. I like “real” commedia when it’s done right, but that’s rare generally and even rarer in the U.S.; when clowning is simply substituted for lazzi—whether 17th-century period gags or their modern equivalents—I can get enervated quickly. That’s largely what happened for me at the STC’s Servant of Two Masters. It was well done, but not inspired.

Don’t get the impression, however, that the Yale production was cheap-jack or thrown together. Katherine Akiko Day’s set was rudimentary, but that’s in the style of commedia. The stage for the most part was bare, with a wooden frame in the center for the plain, worn, pale yellow curtain that represented the wagon stage of the 17th century. (Goldoni’s play would have been presented in a conventional theater, of course, and we must remember that this production is set up as a commedia street show inside a proscenium theater.) The action of Servant took place in front of this frame; up stage, behind the curtain, were tiny little set pieces representing the town, the playing area being an evocation of the town square. (STC’s program doesn’t tell us where the play takes place, but Goldoni’s plays are usually set in Venice, his birthplace. It’s really irrelevant, in any case. Commedia characters each had their own places of birth and their dress and accents were part of the iconography that identified them—but we wouldn’t really recognize that in the 21st-century U.S. anyway.) 


Valérie Thérèse Bart’s colorful costumes were both period- and role-specific, with Pantalone’s outfit harking back to the 16th century as it traditionally did while the rest wore 18th-century garb that evoked their status (peasant, servant, wealthy middle class, and so on) and personality (Clarice was frilly and pink, Silvio foppish and childlike). The half-masks worn by some of the zanni (Truffaldino, Pantalone, Il Dottore—only certain roles, known as “masks,” were traditionally masked) looked like representations of the depictions of commedia masks (no actual ones have survived because they were made of perishable leather), but they were all black rather than painted and their use didn’t much enhance the performance. I don’t know how much mask work the cast did in preparation of the show—none is indicated in the program and no one is credited with this technique (though the masks themselves were designed by Renzo Antonello)—but my impression is that the actors weren’t drilled or trained in mask use and the masks were included only as period-accurate costume accessories. (Masked acting is a very special skill which few modern troupes demand. Even Eric Bentley, in the notes to his edition of classic Italian theater, advises modern western casts not to use them. I’ve published an article on the subject on ROT: “The Magic of Masks,” 17 September 2011.)

The two-man musical combo (Chris Curtis and Robertson Witmer), playing several instruments each including accordion, percussion, and fiddle (plus, among other items, a saw played with a violin bow), almost became additional characters in the performance, interacting with the actors with looks and glances from time to time. Their music, which Curtis also composed with Aaron Halva in a gallimaufry of styles, added a soundtrack to the performance that unified the antic frolicking, and the musicians contributed sound effects to the slapstick antics as well. They contributed immensely to the playful atmosphere of the production, just as I assume the 17th-century musicians might have.

Bayes kept everything moving at a fairly frenetic pace, which is in keeping also with the nature of the play. Commedia isn’t a pensive sort of comedy and the verbiage isn’t of the witty variety that requires a moment to contemplate either in the saying or the hearing. Technically, the performance was excellent: well-conceived and –executed all around. The company all did creditable jobs limning their roles, and there were even some amusing and timely twists on the traditional parts. As Florindo, an avatar of Il Capitano, the braggart soldier, Jesse J. Perez became a Spanish (the text was amended to indicate he’s “foreign”) fop, with a long, flowing wig (he takes it off once or twice) to protect his vanity, and a cavalier’s large-brimmed hat (think Three Musketeers or something—he’s even called Puss-’n–Boots once and Captain Morgan—of the rum fame—also gets a mention). He comes off a bit fey, intentionally, I assume, which is balanced by Rachel Spencer Hewitt’s Federigo/Beatrice, who isn’t so much butch as just very straight. (I wonder if Hewitt was channeling Glenn Close from Albert Nobbs.) The young lover, Silvio, who’s usually pretty much a nonentity, is here portrayed by a slightly chubby Andy Grotelueschen is a sort of Baby Huey in short pants (they’re really wide-legged, loosely-bound breeches, but they give the impression of a Little Lord Fauntleroy brat). Grotelueschen often speaks in an almost-whine and comes close to stomping his foot in petulant impatience when he doesn’t get what he wants.

The casting of the old men was perfectly in line with tradition: Pantalone, in the person of Allen Gilmore, was tall and skinny with a bit of a pot belly under his red gown, towering over the short, round Dottore of Don Darryl Rivera (who could double as Danny Devito with a little make-up). Unfortunately, little was made of this paring except the visual when they stood on stage next to one another. Danielle Brooks’s Clarice, Pantalone’s daughter and the fiancée of, first, Silvio and then “Federigo,” was a little too much of a flibbertigibbet (and she shouted too much for my likes), and Liz Wisan as the servant Smeraldina seemed rather colorless in the midst of all the antics going on, hardly a match for Truffaldino, her traditional suitor.

The center of the play is Truffaldino, the title servant who tries to serve two masters. As an avatar of Harlequin, he’s the trickster, the schemer, who’s eternally hungry and always on the look-out for a way to pick up a little extra (mostly food). Steven Epp, who’s been a colleague of Bayes since the 1980s when they both were at Minneapolis’ Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, a now-defunct avant-garde troupe, handled him well enough as far as the quick-wittedness and slapstick is concerned; he was agile enough when it came to performing the lazzi. (Until I read about Epp’s and Bayes’s connection, I didn’t realize that I’d seen some of the director’s work there in 1989.) But there didn’t seem much depth to the work. Okay, I know that commedia isn’t deep comedy—I said so, didn’t I—but I mean in the stage work. It isn’t that Epp wasn’t committed to the work or didn’t put in effort—he did. But it all seemed rote to me, like he’d been doing it all so long—and I guess he had, since Mom and I saw the play near the end of its Washington run, following a month’s run in New Haven two years ago. The upshot was, I’m sorry to report, that Truffaldino just wasn’t very funny. He mirrored the overall presentation as far I was concerned—perfectly competent but resulting in no more than occasional chuckles or obligatory laughs.

The press overall was lauditory. Not a few made allusions to the Three Stooges (not a selling point for me, admittedly), the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and Abbott and Costello—though I think they were overselling the show. Opening Roll Call’s review by wryly observing, “Washington, D.C., is the perfect backdrop for a commedia dell’arte production, which requires the actors to wear masks, keep their identity fluid and wreak havoc,” Neda Semnani described the STC classic revival as “perfectly, cleverly, wonderfully insane.” “With a comedy as outrageous and fast-paced as this one, the audience—and perhaps even the actors—will never really know what’s going to happen next,” wrote Semnani. “And, in the end, that is the very reason to go.” In the Post, Marks called Bayes’s Servant “deliriously happy-making” and “one of the most gleeful Shakespeare company offerings of the past 10 years.” The director and cast “consistently locate Goldoni’s sweet spot,” he wrote, even as he acknowledged that “it’s in the nature of such carbonated mischief that some of the zaniness veers out of bounds.” In the Washington City Paper, Chris Klimek described the production as a “manic new resuscitation of the 18th century farce” which still had “plenty of amiable excess to enjoy.” Mackay’s Examiner review began with her characterization above, and concluded with an invocation of some of the great comics of a more recent past, saying, “Bayes offers a look into a historical period otherwise unknown to us, and we can understand what commedia audiences may have felt” and Washingtonian magazine’s Horowitz asserted “that Servant “has everything—high hilarity, low comedy, breakneck slapstick, fine singing, a bit of dancing, and a dash of fish juggling” and summed up with “It's simply a riot.” Calling the adaptation “commedia-lite,” however, Kate Wingfield of Metro Weekly warned that “if you like your humor telegraphed, your slapstick shameless and your gags spelled out, yelled and repeated, you will find the proceedings pants-wettingly funny.”

The blogosphere largely agreed with the printed press. Amanda Gunther started out with the observation, “The audience’s laughter was shaking the rafters” in the Lansburgh (though I’m not sure the theater actually has any) in DC Metro Theater Arts, dubbing the production “an uproarious faction of fools.” Gunther especially praised “the way the characters constantly physicalize the textual metaphors they are speaking.” In the end, she reminded her readers that “everything is also enchanted” in the STC Servant. On Maryland Theatre Guide, Elliot Lanes labeled the STC production “a commedia dell’arte lover’s delight,” observing , “The ensemble works beautifully as a whole.” “Director Christopher Bayes and company have done a yeoman’s job of giving us a hilarious evening in the theatre,” Lanes concluded. In his Baltimore Sun blog, Tim Smith called the show “terrifically clever, offering a joy ride of witty dialogue and physical shtick that never runs out of steam.” “I defy you to remember any cares and woes,” he challenged his readers, “while spending a few hours” at the Lansburgh. Taking another tack, Hunter Styles praised the performers in DC Theatre Scene because they “act like children” as “they unbottle their most primal, outsized emotions with such smarts and skill that it’s hard to not flash-back to the days of recess.” “Charmingly vulgar, hugely aerobic, and strewn with nifty low-key tricks,” Styles said, Servant was a “finely tuned and divinely funny” show.


[Since I mentioned the Strehler production of Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters several times in this report, I’ve decided to post the 2005 report on the Piccolo Teatro’s performance at the Lincoln Center Festival for comparison’s sake. Come back to ROT in the coming weeks to see what I said about that production seven years ago and how I thought it differed from Christopher Bayes’s interpretation.]