28 July 2016

'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' (Lincoln Center Festival 2016)

Molière may be more popular with theater folk—actors and directors—than audiences, at least on this side of the Atlantic.  His plays are read in college courses, particularly French language and literature classes, and they appear on university and rep company stages around the country, but commercially, I don’t know that they sell so well.  Except for the raucous adaptation of the commedia farce Scapino in the mid-1970s, nearly all Broadway revivals of Molière plays have had very short runs.  (The non-profit Off-Broadway subscription troupes, like the regional reps, have mounted many productions, 24 since 1956, but no Off-Broadway productions were commercial runs.)

Still, Molière is the most famous theater name in France.  He is to the French stage what Calderón is to Spain, Schiller and Goethe are to Germany, or Shakespeare is to Britain.  France’s national theater, the Comédie-Française, is known as the House of Molière and the country’s national theater award, the counterpart of our Tony and the U.K.’s Olivier, is the Molière, first presented in 1987. 

As part of the 2016 Lincoln Center Festival, C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the Paris-based international troupe, has brought its  production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, billed as a comédie-ballet with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (a division of the City University of New York) on West 59th Street west of Columbus Circle.  The visit from Paris provided five evening performances in French with English supertitles between 20 and 24 July; Diana, my usual theater companion, and I caught the 7 p.m. show on Thursday, 21 July.  The production débuted at C.I.C.T.’s home theater on the Boulevard de la Chapelle near the Gare du Nord in Paris’s 10th Arrondissement from 19 June to 21 July 2012 and again from 26 June to 26 July 2015. 

The Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (C.I.C.T. – International Centre for Theatre Creation), formerly known as the International Centre for Theatre Research (C.I.R.T.), was founded in 1970 by Peter Brook, British director, experimentalist, and theoretician, and Micheline Rozan.  (I posted a research paper about “Peter Brook’s International Centre of Theatre Research” on ROT on 23 August 2011.)  This multicultural and multinational company, an assembly of actors, dancers, musicians, and other performing artists, travelled widely in the Middle East and Africa in the early 1970s on a three-year quest to explore the “common stories” of world culture.  In that period, Brook’s troupe presented some very large, experimental productions around the word, such as Orghast I & II, performed in 1971 at the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran in the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam, and The Conference of the Birds developed in West Africa in 1972.  In 1974, C.I.C.T. took over Paris’s Bouffes du Nord theater, a derelict former music hall and variety theater, built in 1876.  In 2008, Brook announced that he would gradually hand the reins of C.I.C.T. over to Olivier Mantei, Bouffes du Nord’s head of musical programming and former deputy director of Paris’s Opéra-Comique, and Olivier Poubelle, a theater entrepreneur specializing in modern music.  Mantei and Poubelle assumed leadership of C.I.C.T.in 2011 and the company now focuses on a mixture of popular music, opera, classical music, dance, and theater.  (In September and October this year, Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne will be bringing C.I.C.T.’s Battlefield, an excerpt of Jean-Claude Carrière’s monumental stage adaptation of The Mahabharata, to the Brooklyn Acadamy of Music, where, in 1988, they staged the full nine-hour, three-part spectacular.) 

Molière, the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-73), was born in Paris to an upholsterer, a prosperous member of the bourgeoisie, the French middle class.  At 21, he left the family business, abandoned the study of law and took up a career in the theater as an actor and, eventually, a playwright.  His first appearances on stage were with the Illustre Théâtre, a short-lived venture which soon went bankrupt in 1645.  After a brief stint in debtors’ prison, Molière adopted his professional name and rededicated himself to a life in the theater, spending most of the next dozen years barnstorming the French provinces with Madeleine Béjart, the Illustre’s leading lady and his mistress, and other itinerant performers, honing his skills as a comic actor and playwright (though he longed for success as a tragedian), and turning out a number of farces inspired by the Italian commedia dell’arte troupes he encountered in his travels. 

The company returned to Paris in 1658 with Molière as their manager and had a great success with his farce Les Précieuses ridicules (The Affected Young Ladies or The Pretentious Young Ladies).  Invited to perform before Louis XIV (b. 1638, reigned 1643-1715), Molière’s troupe quickly won the king’s favor, and was granted the use of the Petit Bourbon (a court theater adjacent to the Louvre) and later the Palais-Royal for their farces, character comedies, and lavish court entertainments.  In 1662, Molière married Madeleine Béjart’s younger sister (or perhaps daughter), Armande, who became a leading actress in his company, beginning with his next play, L’École des femmes (The School for Wives), which propelled the playwright into the ranks of France’s greatest dramatists.

In 1661, Molière introduced the comédies-ballets in conjunction with Les Fâcheux (The Mad), called a diversion for the King’s amusement. These ballets were one of the first steps toward musical comedy in which dialogue, music, songs, and dance were combined in a coherent whole.  (We’ll see that in the case of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, I don’t really feel this is actually accomplished.)  Commissioned to mount both a play and a ballet in honor of Le Roi Soleil, Molière decided to combine the two.  The idea succeeded and Molière was asked to produce twelve more comédies-ballets before his death.  Molière’s collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87), the king’s court composer, began with Les Fâcheux, to which Lully contributed one song.  But Lully was also a dancer and choreographer and the king brought the two artists together to create more comedy ballets.  These musical theater pieces demand that the dancers and the actors both play important roles in advancing the plots.  Molière and Lully created Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, their ninth collaboration, in 1670, followed by several lesser-known pieces, but in 1672, Lully and Molière split and the playwright collaborated with composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) on the last play Molière wrote, The Imaginary Invalid.

A number of Molière’s plays were critical failures, however, and both Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur (1664) and Dom Juan ou Le Festin de pierre (Don Juan or The Feast with the Statue, 1665—usually simply called Don Juan in English) were censored despite the patronage of the Sun King.  Nonetheless, by 1665, Molière’s company was awarded regular pensions from the crown, and awarded the title of La Troupe du RoiLe Misanthrope ou L’Atrabilaire amoureux  (The Misanthrope, or the Cantankerous Lover, usually simply The Misanthrope in English) and Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself) premièred a year later, followed by L’Avare ou L’École du mensonge (The Miser—the subtitle, not used in English versions, means “The school of lying”—1668) and Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies, 1672).  

Molière’s next play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid, 1673), which ironically featured the playwright as a grousing hypochondriac, was to be his last: Molière, who was debilitated by tuberculosis (possibly contracted while in prison) since about 1665, collapsed on stage with a coughing fit.  The great writer insisted on finishing the performance, but died from severe hemorrhaging shortly afterwards.  He hadn’t received last rites because two priests refused to attend him (because he was an actor, an outcast profession), and a Christian burial was initially denied him.  The archbishop of Paris, however, responded to petitions from Molière’s widow and grudgingly allowed a private nighttime burial in the parish cemetery.

Just about all of Molière’s titles are well known, even if the plays themselves aren’t: The Miser, The Misanthrope, The Imaginary Invalid, TartuffeLe Bourgeois gentilhomme, the writer’s farcical send-up of social-climbing and class pretentions, belongs in this category (between 1879 and 2003, only three productions of The Would-Be Gentleman were mounted on Broadway, including one in French; none have been staged Off-Broadway).  

Unlike most of Molière’s other works, though, the title of Bourgeois gentilhomme often goes untranslated because it’s a little tricky.  One common rendering, The Would-Be Gentleman, is accurate but clumsy, another, The Bourgeois Gentleman, is misleading.  The title’s meant as an oxymoron.  A brief (if grammatical) explanation, then:  the word bourgeois in the title is a noun rather than an adjective.  A bourgeois, which is what Monsieur Jourdain is called in the list of characters, is a wealthy member of the middle class—a member of the Third Estate of the French- realm.  The word gentilhomme is used adjectivally (in English grammar, it’d be called an “attributive noun”).  A gentilhomme is an aristocrat, a man of “gentle birth,” often called in the play “une personne de qualité”—a member of the Second Estate.  Neither word refers to a man’s character, discernment, or social demeanor.  It’s solely a matter of birth and lineage: a “gentleman” in France was by definition nobly born, so there couldn’t be such thing as a “bourgeois gentleman.”  The meaning of the play’s title, then, isn’t ‘the gentleman who is bourgeois,’ but ‘the bourgeois who would be a gentleman.’   

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, commissioned by the king for performance by La Troupe du Roi at his hunting retreat at the Château of Chambord on the Loir River, satirizes attempts at social-climbing and both the bourgeois and aristocratic personality, poking fun on the one hand at the vulgar, pretentious middle-class and on the other, the vain, snobbish aristocracy.  Though Molière was always careful not to attack the monarchy itself, and the theme of Bourgeois gentilhomme is the fatuity of the bourgeois who would become a gentilhomme, it shouldn’t be lost on the spectators that the aristocrats in the play, Dorante and Dorimène, are scoundrels, liars, parasites, and dissemblers while the admirable characters, Cléonte and Madame Jourdain, are proud members of the middle class.  The members of the original audiences for Molière’s farce, all part of France’s Deuxième État, laughing at the foolishness of M. Jourdain, played by Molière, himself an actual member of the bourgeoisie, were, in fact, laughing at the mockery of their very own class.

Le Bourgeois gentilhomme takes place at Monsieur Jourdain’s house in Paris.  Jourdain (Pascal Rénéric) is a middle-aged bourgeois whose father grew rich as a cloth merchant.  The foolish Jourdain now has one aim in life: to be accepted as an aristocrat.  To this end, he orders splendid new clothes and is delighted when the tailor (Alexandre Steiger) mockingly addresses him as “Monseignieur” (“my Lord”).  He hires instructors to educate him in the gentlemanly arts of fencing (Manuel Le Lièvre), dancing (Thibault Vinçon), music (Julien Campani), and philosophy (Francis Leplay).  (Elisabeth Vincentelli, the reviewer for the New York Times, called Jourdain “the original culture vulture.”  Jerry Hochman of the website CriticalDance even suggested that in his 17th-century get-up, Vinçon resembled court dance master and Bourgeois gentilhomme choreographer Pierre Beauchamp, 1631-1705, and Campani looked like Lully—but I wouldn’t know and I wonder how may theatergoers today, even among the French audiences, would recognize these figures.)  

In pursuing his refinement, Jourdain continually manages to make a fool of himself, to the dismay of his hired teachers.  His philosophy instruction becomes a basic lesson in French elocution and language in which he’s surprised and delighted to learn that he’s been speaking prose all his life without knowing it.  (Of the elocution lesson, Vincentelli quipped that it was “a riotous scene that should haunt every American who has ever struggled with the French ‘u’ sound.”  I can relate to that, but what it called to mind more for me was distinguishing the German ü, which, when I mastered it, I felt a palpable sense of accomplishment.)

Madame Jourdain (Isabelle Candelier), the bourgeois’s down-to-earth wife, sees that he’s making a fool of himself and urges him to return to his customary middle-class life, and to forget all he’s learned.  A cash-strapped count named Dorante (Campani) has attached himself to M. Jourdain, though he secretly despises the man.  Dorante continually flatters Jourdain for, by telling the fool that he mentioned Jourdain’s name to the king at Versailles, the count can get Jourdain to pay his debts.  Jourdain’s hopes of being upper-class go higher and higher.  He dreams, for instance, of wooing a Marquise, Dorimène (Bénédicte Guilbert), and having his daughter, Lucille (Elodie Huber), marry a nobleman.  But Lucile’s in love with the middle-class Cléonte (Vinçon), a former soldier, while Cléonte’s valet, Covielle (Steiger), is in love with Lucile’s maid, Nicole (Manon Combes).  Of course, M. Jourdain refuses his permission for Lucile to marry Cléonte.

To hoodwink Jourdain into letting his daughter follow her heart, Cléonte, assisted by Covielle  and Mme. Jourdain, disguises himself as the son of the Sultan of Turkey and presents himself to Jourdain to ask for Lucile’s hand.  Jourdain, thrilled to have his daughter marry royalty, is taken in.  He’s even more delighted when “Son Altesse Turque” (‘His Turkish Highness’) informs him that, as father of the bride, he, too, will be officially elevated to the noble rank of Mamamouchi (a nonsense title) at a special ceremony.

Jourdain is invested in la cérémonie turque, an absurd Orientalist masque of dervishes, turbans, and carpets in a sequence that was especially requested by Louis XIV to travesty the snobbish behavior of the Ottoman envoy to the French court a few months earlier.  (These scenes proceed with the “Turks” speaking Sabir, a kind of pidgin used by sailors and traders around the Mediterranean basin from the 11th to the 19th centuries.  Based on various Italian and Iberian dialects of the late middle ages and early Renaissance, it borrowed also from North African languages and Turkish, French, Greek, and Arabic.  Sabir would have been intelligible to French-speakers, but translation is difficult, so English renditions often use Pidgin English for the comic effect.)  The play ends with this absurd ceremony, the “Ballet des Nations,” with much singing, chanting, and dancing.  (Denis Podalydès’s staging significantly truncates this intermède apparently.)

(A note about the travesty of Turkish and Muslim rites: my companion wondered how such obvious ridicule went unanswered by France’s often volatile Middle-Eastern populace.  The cérémonie turque and Le Ballet des Nations were certainly meant to be insulting—that’s what Louis XIV had wanted, after all—and Molière’s script even called for a Koran to be used as a comic prop, a bit that the Bouffes du Nord wisely cut.  As far as I know, no French reviewer made any mention of this cultural misstep, but also, no group or individual protested this aspect of the play.  This was apparently so even though I understand that the 10th Arrondissement, Bouffes du Nord’s home district, is heavily Muslim in population.)

A five-act comédie-ballet written mostly in prose, unlike Tartuffe and Le Misanthrope, the language of Bourgeois gentilhomme is very simple and its structure is almost elementary.  (It was good I still remember the play from reading it many years ago because the supertitles were useless.  One reviewer made this same complaint.)  It’s often criticized as comprising three acts of comedy, the first two of which are a nearly plotless series of lazzi, and two of extraneous comic buffoonery.  Diana called the play “vacuous nonsense,” but that’s just a (negative) take on Molière.  The playwright’s farces, unlike the high wit and comedy of manners of the next century, were founded on the low physical comedy of the Italian-style commedia dell’arte that was still popular when Molière was touring the provinces.  Molière had refined the comic clowning and humanized the stock characters of commedia into recognizable denizens of 17th-century French society, but his plays aren’t deep or intellectually challenging.  Diana’s response is a critic’s response—especially a literary critic’s.  Molière knew how to please an audience, however, and his plays, whatever their excesses, work.

Bouffes du Nord’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, however, was interesting, but loooong (three hours and 15 minutes with one intermission).  The music (directed by Christophe Coin) and dance (choreographed by Kaori Ito)—which for this production wasn’t conceived as period-appropriate—for the most part were attenuating rather than enhancing.  (In addition to Lully’s compositions for the original Bourgeois gentilhomme, Denis Podalydès and Coin added music by other composers.)  The exception was the opening intermède (‘interlude’) which is M. Jourdain’s music and dancing lesson and he interacts with the singers, dancers, and musicians.  (This also sets the tone for Jourdain’s buffoonish grasp of the refinements of the Deuxième État.)  The performances, however, were excellent—especially the Jourdain of Rénéric, who’s a brilliant physical comedian.  (The marvelous ensemble cast, in fact, is clearly superbly trained and experienced in physical acting, far more than we Americans are for the most part.)  The company was Peter Brook’s former troupe (he relinquished the directorship in 2011), but director Podalydès, is from the Comédie-Française.

While Podalydès, in collaboration with choreographer Ito and musical director Coin, evoked the world of 17th-century France as parodied by Molière, they created an interpretation that was modern in both movement and behavior.  Set designer Éric Ruf lined the back wall of the upstage area with bolts of fabric on vertical racks, revealing the reality of Jourdain’s life as a tradesman (a fact he desperately denies).  For the most part, though, this is the entire pictorial environment of Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with the exception of occasional chairs, rugs, or other props added and removed as needed.  There was no further period décor.  The large cutting table, which is moved about on casters, became all kinds of platforms for one activity or another. 

At stage left were the instruments of Coin’s musical ensemble (L’Ensemble la Révérence): cello, flute, oboe, violin, and harpsichord.  Costume designer Christian Lacroix used rich fabrics to suggest the excesses of the costumes used in the Sun King’s court's sumptuous entertainments (which Financial Times reviewer Max McGuinness labeled “Versailles-era bling”), and M. Jourdain’s absurd attire was a spot-on visual read-out of his ridiculous efforts to purchase good taste.

As a general rule, I find that seeing a play performed by a company from the culture—French actors doing Molière, Russians doing Chekov, Norwegians doing Ibsen—provides a special pleasure.  Obviously, that’s a generalization, but somehow they just get it in a way that foreign casts simply don’t.  It’s not just the language or the plot elements or even the characters, it’s the whole theatrical milieu endemic to the script.  The Brits, for instance, used to be terrible at doing Tennessee Williams or Neil Simon (they’ve gotten better somehow).  It was always slightly artificial, like Americans doing Restoration Comedy or even Oscar Wilde.  (When I was in Berlin in the army, our theater group got friendly with the Brit amateur troupe.  They came over to our place at Tempelhof and did a reading of some comedy—I don’t remember what it was anymore, but I think it was a modern play rather than a classic, maybe something Noel Cowardy—and they just nailed the style as if it were simply natural for them.  I recall being especially impressed with how expertly they handled throw-away lines.  Remember, these were amateurs: British soldiers and dependents.)  

Classic French comedy demands a style of its own: the slapstick hijinks and frenetic movement and speech are an acquired taste for non-Francophile spectators.  Podalydès’s cast pulled off the style so effortlessly that seeing Bouffes du Nord present Bourgeois Gentilhomme was a true revelation—and that right there was more than worth the price of admission.

Lincoln Center Festival performances have such short stage lives that few papers and websites cover them.  The New York Times is usually there (‘the paper of record”) and a few other review platforms publish notices, but the pickings are often slim.  (For Bouffes du Nord’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, not even Show-Score covered the show and surveyed its reviews so there’s no average score for me to report.)  There are, of course, reviews of the Paris performances, a few of them in English (notably a review by Catherine Young in the Theatre Journal of May 2013), available on line, but I generally stick to local notices when I have the choice.

The Financial Times’ McGuinness, praising “the consummate physicality of classically trained French actors,” declared, “Under Denis Podalydès’s brisk direction, every smirk, grimace, cocked eyebrow and pratfall has a method to it in this touring production.”  McGuinness asserted that “the performances are so wittily demonstrative that we always grasp what’s going on, even without understanding French or reading the surtitles,” giving ample credit to “Kaori Ito’s simple yet elegant choreography and a clear-voiced troupe of singers.”  The FT review-writer also complimented the acting of Rénéric as Jourdain for managing “to seem wretchedly pleased with himself and totally awkward in a comic tour de force reminiscent of Jacques Tati” at the same time, and Isabelle Candelier as Mme. Jourdain for “providing an earthy yet charming foil to her grotesquely deluded husband.”  He dubbed Lacroix’s costumes, “which bring the central theme of material extravagance to sumptuous life,” the “other star of the show.”  With the production’s “sense of pure riotous theatricality,” McGuinness said that “Le Bourgeois remains as weird and wonderful as when it was first performed.”

In the Times, Vincentelli dubbed “the giddy production” at the Lynch, “a grin-inducing delight.”  The production, “opting . . . for a refreshing unfussiness,” boasts an “energetic” director in Podalydès and “sumptuous periodish costumes” by Lacroix, “perfectly suited to Sun King-style ostentation.”  Rénéric, Vincentelli reported, “is a marvel of breathless comedic invention.”  

CriticalDance’s Jerry Hochman declared, “Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was a hit in its initial run in 17th century Paris. It’s a hit again.”  The CD reviewer wrote, “It’s an effervescent production that spares no comic expense, overflows with dry (and not so dry) wit, and is as bright and sparkly as champagne (French of course).”  Expecting a recreation of the 1670 staging the audiences at Louis XIV’s court saw, especially the choreography of Pierre Beauchamp, but finding that “the production is an ‘update,’” Hochman saw “how quality contemporary sensibility grafted onto a 17th century form can make the piece work for today’s audiences.”  He found that “in a lot of ways the staging of this production makes it appear spiritually closer, aside from the costumes, to contemporary farce productions” such as Noises Off (Michael Frayn’s 1982 back-stage farce that played on Broadway in 1983-1985).  “From the opening moments,” noted Hochman, “the pace rarely slows.”   With kudos for Manon Combes’s Nicole and Alexandre Steiger’s Covielle, the CD reviewer felt that Rénéric’s M. Jourdain is “the glue that holds the play together.”

23 July 2016

Two Looks Back

(Play Reports from Rick’s Archives)


[In my recent report on Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (posted on 28 June as “Shuffle Along (Redux)), I mentioned in passing that I’d recently watched Audra McDonald, who stars in Shuffle Along: The Making, in a televised performance of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and compared her work as Billie Holiday with her portrayal of Lottie Gee in Shuffle Along: The Making.  I decided to post my brief comments on an earlier production of Lady Day at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.  Interestingly, I found the opinion I formed of the 2006 stage presentation pretty much unchanged by the HBO cable-cast of March 2016.]

On 26 April 2006, my mother and I went to the Arena Stage to see their revival of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill with Lynn Sterling (The Life) as Billie HolidaySome folks may remember that this musical bio piece played Off-Broadway in ’86-’87 with Lonette McKee in the title role (briefly—she left for medical reasons) and has been floating around the country for almost 20 years now.  (Coincidentally, Mom saw another revival at Washington’s Studio Theatre back in ’88-’89.)  I’m afraid the only reason for its popularity that I can see is the chance, depending on fortuitous casting, to see a simulation of Billie Holiday singing some of her signature songs (“God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” “Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness”); it’s really a jukebox musical—though that term hadn’t really become current yet.  

The theater is often set up like a nightclub—the Arena’s Kreeger, the proscenium space, had several cafe tables set up on what would have been the apron and some spectators were seated there—and the only other cast member with lines is the piano player.  Lady Day gives her concert, gets progressively drunker/higher, and recounts the ups and downs of her life from childhood in Baltimore, to her failed and abusive marriage/relationships, her arrest and imprisonment for drug possession, and the final years before her death.  (She died in 1959, the year the play is set in Philadelphia, of cardiac arrest at the age of 44).  

Now, from what I know of Lady Day’s singing (my dad was a fan and a jazzophile), Sterling does a credible job channeling her in the songs, but the monologues are predictable, obvious, and both undramatic and untheatrical.  Maybe a superb actress (or cleverer director than Kenneth Lee Robertson) could do something to enliven the talk, but I doubt it.  There’s nothing there that wouldn’t work better in an A&E Biography or an MTV Behind the Music—or in a biographical book.  Just ‘cause someone dressed like Billie Holiday is saying the words don’t make it theater!  It doesn’t help, I suppose, that Holiday’s story is downbeat and sad—poverty, prejudice, Jim Crow segregation, drugs and alcohol, abuse and violence.  (None of this is entirely unfamiliar, of course.  Aside from the general commonality of the experience with many black performers and other African Americans whose stories have been told in books and film and on TV, Holiday’s story has been available in her own 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, and the 1972 film of the same name starring Diana Ross.)  Both for her and for us, the music is the only relief.  I’d rather have listened to a record.

[What I determined after watching the HBO cable broadcast of Lady Day, directed by Lonny Price (who staged the live version at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, where it ran from 13 April through 5 October 2014), was that the problems I identified with the monologue parts of the performance were as substantial as they had been at the Arena—as I predicted.  I can’t imagine a better actress to embody Billie Holiday than Audra McDonald, who won her record sixth Tony for the role, because she’s an actress of peerless talent both in dramas and musicals.  (Among her six Tonys, McDonald has also won an award in all four of the categories for which an actress can be considered; her other three are: Leading Actress in a Musical for the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Featured Actress in a Musical for Ragtime and Carousel, and Featured Actress in a Play for Master Class and Raisin in the Sun.)  

[Yet, even this monumentally accomplished performer, whose renditions of Holiday’s music is spot-on from what I could judge, could do nothing to enliven the long sections of patter between the songs.  It was still just as untheatrical in her hands as it was when assayed by Lynn Sterling.  Just as clearly, director Price didn’t bring anything more to those moments than did Kenneth Lee Robertson at Arena.  The only benefit, and it was slight, was that in the TV version, which allowed the opening-up of the setting because a camera could follow McDonald around the set, Holiday could move about the bar/cabaret while she talked.  I can’t say it helped much with the real problem—it was just eyewash.]

*  *  *  *

[On 30 June, the Roundabout Theatre Company live-streamed its current production of the musical She Loves Me at Manhattan’s Studio 54.  Nine-and-a-half years ago, I saw a live stage production of the musical, based on the same Hungarian play that was the basis of the 1940 Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film, Shop Around the Corner at Arena Stage on New Year’s Eve 2007.  I wrote up my brief remarks about the performance, part of a longer report like the Lady Day comments, and I’m posting them now as a look back at this charmingly old-fashioned theater piece.  (As I mention in the report below, I also saw the Broadway revival that starred Boyd Gaines and Diane Fratantoni when I caught it in May 1994.  That performance, produced like the current one by the Roundabout Theatre Company, predated my practice of writing up my play-going experiences, however.)]

When I’m with my mom on New Years, it’s our custom to try to find a play on the 31st and then go home and toast in the New Year—sometimes with friends and sometimes just en famille—as we watch the ball drop in Times Square.  This year, the Arena Stage was doing She Loves Me, the 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joe Masteroff musical adaptation of the 1937 Hungarian play on which the 1940 Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan movie Shop Around the Corner is based.  (By some coincidence, one of the cable channels ran both that movie and then the 1949 film musical adaptation—In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson—the week before we saw the stage musical.  That was kind of fun.  The same material is also the basis for 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy, but the cable station didn’t run that one.  All of these are based on Miklós László’s Parfumerie, which, as far as I can tell, has never been performed either on or off Broadway.  I’m not sure the script is even available in English.)  

She Loves Me is an old-fashioned musical in the vein of My Fair Lady and Damn Yankees, though a lesser effort.  (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, of course, had been previously responsible for Fiorello!—my very first Broadway play—and would ultimately create Fiddler on the Roof.  Joe Masteroff would go on to write the book for Cabaret three years later.)  Still, it is charming and fun, even if the songs are not especially memorable, and it made a perfect entertainment for the New Year’s Eve hours leading up to the propitious moment.  

Arena’s production, which included no stars or actors whom I knew, was even, solid, and much more than just competent, though no performance stood out in the ensemble.  Director Kyle Donnelly made good use of the Fichandler’s arena platform—I always feel that staging a musical in the round is particularly hard—and everyone’s voice was strong (they were miked, as usual these days) and vibrant.  I especially liked Arpad’s one solo number, “Try Me,” his self-promotion.  Clifton Guterman, the young actor playing the delivery boy-who-would-be-a-clerk, may look a tad older than a teenager, but his tenor is youthful and his enthusiasm in selling himself (and the song) was delightful.  But in the end, this was an ensemble production (though its past includes stars: Barbara Cook as Amalia Balash in the original Broadway run along with Jack Cassidy, who won a Tony as the self-serving Steven Kodaly; and near-stars: Boyd Gaines, who won a Tony as Georg Nowack in the 1993 Roundabout/Broadway revival, and Louis Zorich, “Mr. Olympia Dukakis,” as Mr. Maraczek); the cast as a whole did a very nice job in what I had actually forgotten (until I watched the movie again the week before) is really a Christmas story. 

18 July 2016

Re-Reading Shaw – Plays from 1901 to 1909

by Kirk Woodward

[This is part 2 of Kirk Woodward’s series, “Re-Reading Shaw,” his commentary upon reading all six volumes of the playwright’s Complete Plays with Prefaces (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963).  The first section, covering plays written from 1885 to 1902, was posted on ROT on 3 July, and though there are some references to earlier parts of the series in later ones, each section substantially stands on its own.  Nonetheless, I strongly recommend reading them in order to get a sense of the sweep of Shaw’s work over the 65 years of his playwriting career.  (Even before the Irishman turned to writing for the theater, he had a significant career as a respected music and theater critic.)]

MAN AND SUPERMAN (1901-1903 / 1905) begins with the inscription “To Arthur Bingham Walkley” (1855-1926), drama critic for the Times of London, who Shaw says suggested that he write a play about Don Juan, the fictional womanizing libertine.

Shaw then goes on to write a preface of dumbfounding folderol, crammed with assertions like “It may seem a long step from [John] Bunyan to [Friedrich] Nietzsche, but the difference between their conclusions is merely formal” (like hell it is), and the claim that his Don Juan character is a direct descendant of the original fictional Don.

There are in fact only the small differences that he is neither a womanizer nor a libertine – he’s only a society radical who has written a book called The Revolutionist’s Handbook (which Shaw has written and attaches to the play, and in which Shaw, following his usual pattern, redefines the concept of Revolution into something unrecognizable).

The high-sounding nonsense of the preface leads into a lively comedy of social relations, mixed with a heavy dose of discussion and enough plot to make one think it might equally well have been a novel.

It is a four act play, and in Act III a famous “set piece” interrupts the plot, a discussion between four main characters of the original Don Juan story – Don Juan, Dona Ana, the Commodore (her father), and the Devil – that has become known as “Don Juan in Hell.” Hell, in Shaw’s vision, is the place where everyone is completely entranced by ideals.

The four characters are played by the actors who play their counterparts in the other three acts. (Some productions cut this act; occasionally the act has been performed by itself.) I had not realized until this reading of the play that the third act is not all that different from the others.

They are all filled with talk about ideas – if not Shaw’s ideas, at least ideas of interest to Shaw; but in Acts 1, 2, and 4 the ideas belong to their characters, and are not arbitrarily assigned to them.

I do not feel the same is true of Act III, “Don Juan in Hell.” In the rest of the play Jack Tanner, the Don Juan character, is so extreme that he comes across as a bit loony (“possibly a little mad,” Shaw says in his description). But in Act III he, as Don Juan, clearly speaks for Shaw.

I am not saying the scene is only a pamphlet – the dialogue is very clever – but from the time Don Juan begins his series of monologues on the subject of the Life Force and Woman as its instrument, I find myself increasingly irritated by the repetition of concepts that aren’t original, difficult to understand, or fundamentally very interesting, and are repeated so often that taking a swig every time a character says “Life Force” would make a potent drinking game.

What is this Life Force, exactly? I remember listening to a recording of “Don Juan in Hell,” as performed by Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorehead, Cedric Hardwicke, and Charles Laughton, with my friend Steve Johnson. When it was over, Steve said he didn’t think Shaw was clear whether the Life Force was personal or impersonal. Is it blind or mind?

It seems to me that Steve is correct and that Shaw wants to have it both ways – or at least to allow his audience to think that it could be either. In any case, the Life Force, Don Juan says, “needs a brain . . .” “The Life Force is stupid.” Personally I am not sure Don Juan is putting the blame in the right place.

“Every child,” Shaw says in another preface, “is an experiment by the Life Force.” But an experiment requires a scientist or an observer – an experimenter, one who stands above the experiment. Shaw does not appear to notice this.

The third act does not begin with the “Don Juan in Hell” scene, incidentally. It begins with an extraordinarily articulate group of brigands in the mountains of Spain. Of course they are articulate. In this play everyone talks. (At one plot point, the chief brigand exclaims, “A dramatic coincidence!”)

One sees in Man and Superman Shaw’s ability to draw on a huge range of reading and to synthesize what he reads.

In the case of this play, Walkley, I suspect, challenged Shaw to write a Don Juan play to goad him into writing something with more sex in it than Shaw usually chose to include. Shaw answers him by writing a play about the sexual instinct, which he sees as an instrument of the Life Force that uses woman’s manipulation of man to advance the species.

One can get tired, however, of Shaw’s continual insistence in the play on the sexual instinct and on how woman drags man along – or rather about the talk about it by John Tanner, the title character (both the Man and the Superman). At least I do.

Act IV seems to me a bit schematic, although I have not seen it performed and might feel differently if I saw it staged.

It was while reading Act IV that I realized that the play is Shaw’s version of what he thinks Shakespeare should have written in Much Ado about Nothing. (Matt Wolf made this same point in a review of a London production of Man and Superman in the New York Times, 11 March 2015.)

Shaw severely criticized the characters of Beatrice and Benedick:

Paraphrase the encounters of Benedick and Beatrice . . . and it will become apparent to the most infatuated Shakespearean that they contain at best nothing out of the common in thought or wit, and at worst a good deal of vulgar naughtiness. . . nothing more than the platitudes of proverbial philosophy, with a very occasional curiosity in the shape of a rudiment of some modern idea, not followed up. (The Saturday Review, 26 Feb 1898)

Shaw attempts to correct Shakespeare’s alleged insufficiencies by making his Ann Whitefield tricky, and his John Tanner full of complaints about being entrapped by women and the Life Force. As with the character of Julius Caesar, it seems to me that Shaw does not surpass Shakespeare here – rather the contrary.

About that “Superman”. . . not a bird, or a plane . . . Shaw took the term from Nietzsche’s “Übermensch,” but a better translation might be Over-Man, or perhaps Beyond-Human. Shaw uses the term to suggest that humanity might somehow outgrow itself and become something greater – “the ideal individual being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self conscious: in short, a god.”

Shaw knows at some level how unappealing  this sounds; but it’s the Devil, interestingly, who says, “Beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman: it leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the Human.” Shaw’s plays illustrate the Devil’s comment more than once.

The word “superman,” along with the concept, has lost its charm and now seems as ghastly as Nietzsche’s other futuristic idea, the “Eternal Return,” which Shaw nods to in Act III but doesn’t otherwise promote, being allergic to an “eternal” anything. Shaw uses “the Superman” aspirationally but fails to suggest any way it might actually be an improvement on our present condition.

As Shaw grew older and more frustrated with the pace of change in society, he appears to have begun to think he had discovered the Superman in real human beings – for example, in Lenin and Stalin. The size of his mistake is the measure of his desperation.

JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND (1904) – Shaw’s play about Ireland, his homeland, written for and rejected by the Abbey Theatre because, as William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the theater’s manager, said, it was technically too demanding to produce, but also, as everyone understood, because Shaw presented the Ireland of his day realistically:

It was uncongenial to the whole spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement, which is bent on creating a new Ireland after its own ideal, whereas my play is a very uncompromising presentment of the real old Ireland.

Shaw actually understates the matter. The play is an attack on everything an Irish audience could possibly believe about itself. Shaw claims that he gets his effects by telling the simple truth about things, but in fact he frequently goes out of his way to be as obnoxious about them as possible; his denials of this are disingenuous.

It makes sense that the play had to succeed in London before it could be performed in Dublin; success at least took a bit of the sting off it.

(As a tip of the hat to the Abbey Theatre, the third act includes a long scene in which a large group of people sit and talk – the kind of staging for which the Abbey was most noted.)

There are three prefaces to the play, less overbearing in tone than some of his more didactic introductions, dated 1912, 1906, and 1929. In the first, Shaw predicts how events will work out in Ireland; as he admits in a note, he was completely wrong. In the second, written for the play’s first publication, he analyzes the Irish and English national characters. In the third, he summarizes the ghastly historical events – the Easter Rebellion, the Black and Tans, partition – that shaped the Ireland we know today. In the course of these essays he makes trenchant observations on colonialism, for example:

A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again.

Acquired rights are deduced from political constitutions; but political constitutions are deduced from natural rights.

A political scheme that cannot be carried out except by soldiers will not be a permanent one.

We settled the Irish Question, not as civilized and reasonable men should have settled it, but as dogs settle a dispute over a bone.

What is left of John Bull’s Other Island, now the Irish Question has been (more or less) settled? The play became famous when King Edward VII, at a special performance, laughed so hard that he broke his chair, and it was a commercial success for Shaw. But the humor is of a particular kind. It’s a comedy of reversals – in particular, reversals of the ideas that the characters have about themselves.

In this sense it resembles the plays of another Irishman, Eugene O’Neill, whoseThe Iceman Cometh (1939 / 1946) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941-1942 / 1956) also dramatize the destruction of illusions. O’Neill is not a funny writer; Shaw’s tone here, of course, is comic, but also bitter. “My way of joking is to tell the truth,” says the former priest, Keegan, who has a lot of Shaw in him; “It’s the funniest joke in the world.”

Broadbent, the English businessman who in 24 hours manages to dominate an entire swath of Ireland, is a version of Undershaft, the arms dealer in Major Barbara, but without Undershaft’s self-awareness; and there is nothing humorous about Undershaft anyway. As the Irish character Larry Doyle says in the play, “I wish I could find a country to live in where the facts were not brutal and the dreams not unreal.”

There’s a fine line between illusion and poetry. Shaw tells us that our poetic image of Ireland is an illusion – and that the same is true of most of our lives. Whether or not that’s so, poetry is forbidden territory for Shaw, although Keegan’s “vision” at the end of the play sticks in the mind. I see it as a bleak play, a decade and a half before the melancholy Heartbreak House. One wonders what the King was laughing at.

“How He Lied To Her Husband” (1904) was written as a curtain raiser for “The Man of Destiny,” which wasn’t long enough for a full evening. It is a telescoped version of Candida, with a married woman and a younger man who idolizes her. When the poems he wrote about her are lost, and presumably found by her gossipy sister-in-law, she becomes utterly realistic, and the poet is disillusioned. Then the husband comes home...

“How He Lied,” like “The Glimpse of Reality,” is a marvelous short play, funny and smart, and well worthy of production.

MAJOR BARBARA (1905) – This play has an excellent reputation. When I first read it years ago, my impression was that it (like Saint Joan) was essentially a tragedy – that is, a play about a mighty conflict between powerful forces that will not yield.

I still feel that “tragedy” describes the play at its best. This time around, though, I see more clearly what Shaw is up to, and I can’t applaud it. It is in Major Barbara that Shaw shows among the first definite signs of the ugly pattern that will disfigure his later life – his admiration for dictators, primarily Stalin, at times Hitler and Mussolini as well, and others in theory.

“Major” Barbara is a Salvation Army officer, working to save the lives and souls of the poor, and her father, Andrew Undershaft, also dedicates himself to lifting the living conditions of his workers – except that his business is weapons and munitions, so he is equally to be credited for good working conditions, and for countless brutal deaths throughout the world. He offers to underwrite the work of the Salvation Army. Barbara finds this outrageous; the Army finds it a miracle. Barbara’s faith is shattered.

Undershaft’s position is that there is no active force in life except money; that poverty is the only evil, and abundance the only good; that the only moral question is whether one is well-off or not. Shaw astonishingly writes his preface to the play, not as though he were Shaw, but as though he were Undershaft – as though he believed exactly what Undershaft believes, even to the point that, as the arms czar says, a person doesn’t really believe in something until he’s ready – not to die, but – to kill for it.

For me, the effect of this is ghastly – not that the character of Undershaft should feel this way, because that’s appropriate, but that Shaw should appear to. This preface and play prefigure Shaw’s future fascination with dictators, and his cheerful acceptance of executions as a means of improving the world.

The critic Eric Bentley, in general an admirer of Shaw, called him out on this point, asking: is killing really the only way to improve the world? Are there no alternatives? Shaw becomes unsettlingly ready to accept the sacrifice of human life for the benefit of – human life! Reading the preface and play this time around made my skin crawl.

Murder is also the theme of “Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction” (1905), a lunatic farce in which the victim, among other actions, eats some of the ceiling. There is a whisper of a theme here about the role of ideals in our lives, but mostly you can’t hear the whisper over the knockabout farce.

THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA (1906) – The first play in the collection is one I had always avoided on the understanding that it wasn’t top drawer Shaw. To my delight, it turns out to be a well-crafted melodrama about the dangers of being a Professional, whether in medicine or some other field (this play includes Shaw’s famous – and accurate – aphorism that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity”).

The core of the plot is a story of sexual desire – a doctor lusts after the wife of a potential patient, a dishonest, slippery con man who also happens to be a brilliant artist. Perhaps the doctor ought to save the artist’s life because of his potential for great contributions to society? On the other hand, the man is essentially a sociopath, and if his life is not saved, the doctor may be able to marry his wife! People who consider Shaw’s plays “bloodless” might want to consider what happens in this one. The dialogue is clever throughout.

“The Interlude at the Playhouse” (1907), written for the opening of a new theater, is a comedy sketch for the theater’s actor-manager, scheduled to give a speech, and his wife, trying to prepare the audience to like it. Except for a bit of preaching at the end, it is consistently funny, showing again that among many other things, Shaw was a fine comedy writer.

GETTING MARRIED (1908) has a preface on marriage almost a hundred pages long. Is there that much to say about marriage? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But that was Tolstoy, not Shaw. However, this is one of Shaw’s more agreeable prefaces, because it is one of his least utopian.

We shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath by abolishing an institution which needs nothing more than a little obvious and easy rationalizing to make it not only harmless but comfortable, honorable, and useful.

This is not always the note we hear in Shaw. (Another exception is the waiter's speech from You Never Can Tell quoted in the first article in this series.)

The preface is long, among other reasons, because Shaw doesn’t consider any social problem to be separate from society as a whole. “Until we abolish poverty,” he says, “it is impossible to push rational measures of any kind very far.” This perspective opens the door a good deal wider than does a simple proposal for the liberalization of divorce laws, which is Shaw’s basic recommendation.

The preface predictably contains numerous unsupported generalizations delivered as settled fact. But there are also shrewd observations. Among these are reflections on the advantages of large families; on the difference between the “what” of a problem (identifiable by popular opinion) and the “how” of its solution (probably requiring expert help); and on Othello’s feeling for Desdemona (“this is not what a man feels about the thing he loves, but about the thing he owns”).

Getting Married and its preface have a comfortable relationship: the preface illuminates the play, or the play illuminates the preface, take your pick. Shaw wrote the play in one long act, in which the characters try to figure out what marriage is and what they think of it.

There is a central situation – an engaged couple read a pamphlet about marriage just before their wedding ceremony, and it frightens them – surrounded by many other existing and potential marriages.

There is a lot of talk – too much for the play to support – and yet another female character entering toward the end to give the play a boost. “Marriage,” says a Wisdom character in the play, “is tolerable enough in its way if youre easygoing and don’t expect too much from it. But it doesn’t bear thinking about. The great thing is to get the young people tied up before they know what they’re in for.”

THE SHEWING-UP OF BLANCO POSNET (1909) – Blanco Posnet is a one-act play, set in the American West. A notable fact about Shaw is that, while his ideas remain basically consistent and reappear in play after play, the plays themselves have a great variety of forms and settings. In externals, one play by Shaw seldom resembles another one. Shaw certainly had never been in the American West, and his picture of it has been picked at, but it does the job.

Shaw being Shaw, of course, Blanco Posnet is not a typical Western, being a story of spiritual redemption. Posnet says, toward the end of the play:

By Jiminy, gents, theres a rotten game, and theres a great game. I played the rotten game; but the great game was played on me; and now I’m for the great game every time. Amen.

The play suggests that there are good points in Christianity, but that there is something greater; in this play, Shaw doesn’t make explicit what that is. We can guess he means the Life Force, but an audience member who knew nothing about his theories would have to work hard to extract specifics from this play. In any event, the basic effect of it is highly spiritual.

Blanco Posnet was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office – the censor of the stage – who denied it a license for performance, on grounds of blasphemy, unless Shaw agreed to make changes including removing references to God from the play – leaving in it, as Shaw pointed out, all the things one would expect God would oppose.

Shaw refused to make the changes; Yeats and Lady Gregory (1852-1932) arranged for the play to be produced unaltered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where the Lord Chamberlain could not block it.

The preface to Blanco Posnet tells the story of the battle with censorship and the attempt to have it abolished – an attempt that did not succeed until 1968, eighteen years after Shaw’s death. Since then the British theater, needless to say, has flourished. (Blanco Posnet finally had its U.K. premiere in 1909, but for only two performances, in a “private club,” not a licensed theater.) 

“Press Cuttings” (1909) – Shaw burlesques the government’s treatment of the Women’s Suffrage movement in a nearly absurdist sketch demonstrating once again that women and men are practically different species, men being buffoons, and women, brilliant. Reading the sketch works best if one imagines the Monty Python troupe doing the all roles, including the women.

The Censor predictably refused to license the sketch if names resembling those of real politicians and military men were used. Shaw therefore changed the names of the General and Prime Minister to General Bones and Mister Johnson, borrowing them from minstrel shows and thereby making his point even more satirical.

“The Fascinating Foundling” (1909) was written for a charity event at the request of the Prime Minister’s daughter, and Shaw came through with a lively sketch that touches gently on a few social issues but mostly presents people trying to get what they want, totally oblivious to anything else. Fast and funny.

I am not saying that Shaw’s characteristic themes don’t ever pop up in these short plays. The title of the dashing “The Glimpse of Reality” (1909 / 1927) is almost a summary of Shaw’s entire output. The glimpse occurs to a nobleman about to be murdered by well-organized scoundrels; he understands for the first time who he really is, and ironically his insight makes the murderers think he is crazy, so they spare his life (for a price).

This is a really excellent little piece and I’m surprised it’s not more often performed. If you didn’t know the author was Shaw, I’m not sure you’d guess; but who else could the author be?

[As I said in the first installment  of Kirk’s Shavian commentary, there are three more sections of “Re-Reading Shaw” and I’ll be posting them every couple of weeks.  Part 3 of the series covers the plays Shaw wrote between 1909 and 1920; I hope you’ll come back to ROT at the beginning of August to read what Kirk has to say about the period of the great writer’s work.]

13 July 2016

Dispatches from Israel 7

by Helen Kaye

[Last spring, my friend and frequent ROT-contributor Helen Kaye sent me a couple of her Jerusalem Post reviews, but I was so loaded on the blog at the time that I couldn’t shoehorn them in for posting until now.  As late as this is, I’m running Helen’s “Dispatches from Israel 7,” the latest in her occasional series of drama notices from Tel Aviv, where she lives, Jerusalem, and frequently elsewhere around the country.  Below are presented Helen’s assessment of a Hebrew translation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and a British Play, Daytona by Oliver Cotton, both produced in Tel Aviv by Bet Lessin.]

The Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare
Translated by Dori Parnes
Directed by Udi Ben Moshe
Bet Lessin, Tel Aviv; 10 January 2016

Scrumptious, irreverent, farce with an edge! This is a 21st century Shrew to revel in from A – Z and back again.

It starts with a nifty monologue by Yossi Segal on how it’s the guys’ turn in these our “anything you can do I can do better,” days and never lets up for 100 captivating, rollicking minutes.

Dori Parnes has worked his usual sleight of hand with Shakespeare’s text. His wordplays, puns and other verbal pranks preserve Shakespeare’s spirit via up-to-the-minute Hebrew that has the audience in stitches.

Then there’s Udi Ben Moshe’s rib-splitting visual pranks as well as his thoroughly smart take on what this play’s about (won’t be a spoiler – sorry!) that carries through to Lily Ben Nahshon’s enclosing set of doors and revolving panels, Orna Smorgansky’s apt-to-all-times costuming, Adi Cohen’s clever music and Keren Granek’s no-nonsense lighting.

We all know the story. Rich merchant Baptista (Ilan Dar) has two daughters; blond Bianca (Agam Rodberg), a sweetie (?), and redhead Katarina (Maya Dagan), the shrew. Until Kate marries (a remote possibility), Bianca cannot, and who in H… would marry Kate? Enter Petruchio (Yuval Segal) and we’re off!

Shrew is all about Kate and Petruchio, so you’d better make sure you have good ones. Dagan and Segal have us rooting for them from the getgo.

Dagan’s Kate is bruised and bruising, violent and vulnerable, smart and smarting. When we meet her she’s in riding pants and a shirt, mean as an adder, and unloved to boot. We watch, enthralled, as she succumbs oh-so-gradually to being loved and to the elation of partnership.

Yuval Segal’s Petruchio is a riot from his s*#t-kicking grin to his beef-cake swagger compounded by Israeli macho. He transforms too, from gold-digger (“I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua)” to joyous appreciation of endless possibilities, getting there with more changes than a chameleon.

Not that the other actors are standing about. We have Vitali Friedland’s yummy, slippery Grumio, Yaniv Biton’s ebulliently posturing Tranio, Ilan Dar’s gorgeously clueless Baptista, Agam Rodberg’s fleety flirty Bianca, Mordy Gershon’s marvelously inept Hortensio among the splendid rest, not forgetting the delicious cameos by Yossi Segal and Albert Cohen.

This is a Shrew with brio in shovelsful, but you know what it has most of? Ease and fun!

*  *  *  *
By Oliver Cotton
Translated by Yosef el Dror
Directed by Alon Ophir
Bet Lessin, Tel Aviv; 16 March 2016

They’ve made a life for themselves after That Time. What happened Over There is never talked about. Not ever. This evening in 1986 Elli (Liora Rivlin) and Joe (Rafi Tavor), now in their 70s, are rehearsing to Frank Sinatra’s “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” for tomorrow evening’s Seniors Ballroom Dancing event. They’ve won cups that are squashed on a shelf in the living room of their modest Brooklyn apartment. It’s not the cups, it’s the dancing, you see, and in a bit Elli is off to get her dress for the competition.

Then Billy (Avi Oria) arrives. No luggage, but enough Chinese takeout for a small army. He’s all smiles, talking a mile a minute, apparently oblivious that Joe’s welcome is, shall we say, lukewarm. He’s on the run after putting three deliberate and lethal bullets into one Franz Gruber in the swimming pool at his vacation hotel at Daytona, Florida; SS Franz Gruber, now blameless Chaney, formerly a sadistic killer at Stutthof  concentration camp, and whom Billy recognized because of the birthmark on his neck.

After all, where else would he go?

Now? Now he arrives, 30 years after disappearing without a word, demanding his brother’s help.

Yes, Billy and Joe are brothers. The relationship between them and with Elli, when she returns, is the meat of Cotton’s tight family drama. You have to gulp a bit, here and there, but dramatically, theatrically it works. Orna Smorgonsky’s set and costumes – lots of beige and browns - and Nadav Barnea’s lighting add to that.

Director Ophir has wisely elected to avoid pathos, reflected in the actors’ speaking reticence. We get the sense (as it should be), that there’s so much they’re not saying and this adds real punch to their performance.

Rivlin’s Elli is tightly reined in. Even when she spills her guts – and she does – she doesn’t raise her voice; her voice and body are barely there, she holds with effort onto Self. Oria’s Billy is at once overwhelmed at the enormity of what he’s done yet convinced of its correctness and he lets us see the conflict. Rafi Tavor as Joe is more volatile. Of the three, he’s the one who’s managed to grip at life more securely but Billy’s arrival shakes him to the core and Tavor does a gorgeous job with that.

The gulp or two aside, Daytona has heart.  Its humanity holds us.

[Helen’s previous contributions to ROT include “Dispatches” 1 through 6 on 23 January 2013, 6 August 2013, 20 November 2013, 2 June 2015, 22 August 2015 (which also includes an article Helen wrote on the Israel Festival), and 6 October 2015.  (I also posted another of Helen’s JP reviews, Molière’s Tartuffe, on 2 November 2014 as a Comment to “Dispatches 3.”) ROTters might also enjoy looking back at ”Help! It’s August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” 12 September 2010; ”Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel,” 9 November 2012; “Berlin,” 22 July 2013; “A Trip to Poland,” 7 August 2015.]