Friday, August 04, 2006

Ashland: further theater notes

Robin Goodrin Nordli, Rex Young: Roxane and Christian

LAST TIME AROUND I wrote about the four Shakespeare plays we saw last week in Ashland; now let me report on the five other pieces.

Cyrano de Bergerac: pretty damn good, we thought. A first-rate Cyrano and a fine physical production, housed out-of-doors in the Festival Theater, easily offering a balcony for the famous scene in which Cyrano supplies romantic poetry to the tongue-tied young Christian who is wooing Roxane, a scene owing a great deal to Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto to Don Giovanni.

The stage was even better as the camp at the siege of Arras, in the bitter night and the violent battle that follows. Laird Williamson directed in fact a cinematic production of this romantic warhorse, alternating easily between public brawl and intimate conversation. Marco Barricelli was a magnificent Cyrano; Robin Goodrin Nordli a fine and affecting Roxane; Rex Young a sympathetic Christian; and the many other roles were well fleshed out, often in more senses than one.

The only slight cavil might be with the text. The translation, in Anthony Burgess’s rhyming meter, is not up to the familiar one by Brian Hooker, used in the 1950 Jose Ferrer movie. It works well enough in such ironic passages as Cyrano’s famous tribute to his grotesque nose, but in the romantic passages the need to rhyme often shoulders aside the better word.

Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: a revised earlier piece by the British playwright David Edgar, last represented in Ashland (and Berkeley) by his problematic diptych Continental Divide, this was effective and compelling and featured fine acting and production.

Based, of course, on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, the play is as much a commentary on the original, and the society in which it’s set, as it is a transferral to the three dimensions of the stage. Edgar adds important roles for women and for servants, because he wants to condemn the narrow Victorian male view of their roles in society.

Further, he identifies Mr. Hyde’s violent eccentricities (and by implication his evil amoral nature) as the accompaniment of Tourette’s syndrome, and implies that that condition was inherited from Dr. Jekyll’s father, both genetically and by childhood conditioning. This aspect, political and Freudian, seems to me utterly unnecessary to the play. If it was indisputably necessary to Edgar’s inspiration to stage Stevenson in the first place I grudgingly accept it, but I think the play would profit from some further re-writing to make these themes a little subtler.

Penny Metropulos was the director, finding smooth and very quick transitions and penetrating characterizations; William Bloodgood designed the striking set, whose quick turntable-enabled changes underlined the nervous alternations basic to Stevenson’s fable.

James Newcomb, last year’s amazingly powerful and evil Richard III, was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Laura Morach was moving, intelligent, and convincing as the servant-girl Annie Loder; Vilma Silva was subtle and rich as Jekyll’s sister Katherine; Robert Sicular was a fine, sympathetic butler.

The Importance of Being Earnest did not draw the best production I’ve seen — stylish but a little flat, it lacked the brittle quality that makes Wilde just a bit menacing under the surface. This may have been partly the fault of the Angus Bowmer Theater, comfortable and resourceful but too wide, I think, for this most parlorish of plays.

Here, as in a number of other cases, color and lighting were major players in the production. At a noontime lecture the playwright of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde referred to his piece as the reverse of Earnest, and this was perhaps underlined by the choice of William Bloodgood as designer of each. (Come to think of it, it may be the reason for the soft-pedalling of that menace I mentioned: there was just too damned much of it in Jekyll and Hyde.)

Kevin Kenerly, as adaptable an actor as you’d ever want, was a fine, saucy Algernon; Jeff Cummings, often a clown in Shakesperian roles, was the soberer Jack Worthing. Heather Robison and Julie Oda were Gwendolen and Cecily; Judith-Marie Bergan an imposing Lady Bracknell; Dee Maaske a fey Miss Prism; Jonathan Haugen a willing but somewhat miscast Chasuble.

Bus Stop, William Inge’s sentimental play of the 1950s, drew one of the strongest productions of the year. Staged in the small New Theater, for this given a modified in-the-round configuration, the stage gave Libby Appel’s direction a chance to zoom in on each of the eight characters, individually and in their relationships to both other individuals and the ensemble.

Set in a small-town Kansas hash-house, the story concerns four passengers and a Greyhound bus driver waiting out a blizzard, intersecting with the wisecracking cafe proprietor, her adolescent waitress, and the sheriff. The atmosphere verges on claustrophobia as some of these come to grips with their urges and others sit laconically by. The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Sartre’s No Exit aren’t far from Inge’s writing-desk, but he marries those exotic sources to a home-town prairie sensibility that aches with nostalgia for anyone who, like me, spent time in Kansas in the 1940s.

Since I made the mistake earlier on of citing actors, let me just reproduce the cast list here:
Bo Decker: Danforth Comins; Cherie: Tyler Layton; Virgil Blessing: Mark Murphey; Grace: Shona Tucker; Dr. Gerald Lyman: Robert Sicular; Will Masters: Jeffrey King; Elma Duckworth: Nell Geisslinger; Carl: Tyrone Wilson
They were all beautifully matched, true to their parts, as persuasive when simply sitting by silently as when engaged in the drama and the pathos of their roles.

Finally, Intimate Apparel: another new play, this one by Lynn Nottage, about Esther Mills, a black seamstress from the South who settles in ragtime New York in a desparate attempt to make something of herself. She winds up working as a seamstress, to fancy whores and (white) society ladies; and embarks on a strange correspondence with a black laborer working on the canal then a-building in Panama.

The correspondence blossoms into a courtship, of course; the man comes to New York; the end of the first act finds them coming together as bride and groom in as achingly sweet and tender a theatrical passage as I’ve seen anywhere.

So far, so good: Nottage’s lecture on the inequalities and injustices of the early Modern period are subtler than those of David Edgar’s Jekyll and Hyde, because they are perfectly embedded in the developing story of his perfectly believable characters.

After the intermission things go awry, for Esther and for the play, apparently based on events in the lives of the playwright’s own antecedents. The plot begins to plod, and the surprise ending is curiously both abrupt and pat.

But the play is a success — both because you get the feeling it’s an early piece in what will turn out to be a distinguished career, and because the acting is superb. Gwendolyn Mulamba is amazingly deep yet accessibly sympathetic in the lead role; Erik LaRay is a perfect match as her pen-pal George; and the four supporting roles are precisely balanced.

IT’S HARD, THEN, to recommend two or three plays from the season at the expense of others. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have seen this King John, Winter’s Tale, and Bus Stop. I wouldn’t miss Cyrano or Jekyll and Hyde or Intimate Apparel. True, I have left three comedies out of this running: but if your schedule permits one of them, and no other play, then go ahead to it; only a prig or a pedant would really object.

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