Monday, November 05, 2012

Theater down south

In flight, november 6, 2012—

TWO DAYS, THREE PLAYS. Three very different plays, in two quite different venues. We began Friday night with Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, thoughtful, still apt after its hundred years, but talky and, especially in its exposition, discursive. The action centers on a doctor whose new treatment will cure otherwise terminal tuberculosis, but who has only a very much limited supply of medicine. In order to save a brilliant young artist another patient, already selected for the cure, will have to be allowed to die.

There are plot complications, of course, and considerable mockery of rival doctors, all cynical to one degree or another and all ultimately ineffective (for Shaw loathed the medical profession). In the end, though, the play 's a stand-off between fixed morality and social convention, represented by the doctors, and personal freedom — license, in fact — as lived by the dying painter.

I've always had my problems with Shaw, who seems to me to have spent his career wanting to merge or at least mediate Wilde and Ibsen. His greatest flaw is forgivable: he can't resist bringing in side issues. Like many over-intelligent writers he knows that everything is quite complex, and he wants his audience to know that too. Prolixity was rampant in his era: if only he'd satirized that.

I liked virtually everything about the cast and the production; only problems with British accents distracted from the effect. (If we can have American voices in Shakespeare, why not also in Shaw?) An audience-cast discussion after the performance revealed the seriousness of the company's approach and left me impressed with the degree to which they evaded traps Shaw himself doesn't always escape. I still think, though, a little (more?) judicious cutting, especially in the first act, wouldn't have hurt. Surgery has its value, pace Shaw.
ODDLY, THE VERY DIFFERENTLY conceived comedy You Can't Take It With You, with its slapstick and sight gags, delivers the same sermon: lighten up, have fun, live free, escape the tiresome social conventions — especially the drive to work and wealth. After all, you can't take it with you.

The stand-off in this play is between the Sycamore (extended) family, screwball bohemians who write plays because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered, who play the xylophone, dance ballet, make candies for the neighborhood, read Trotsky, and keep a pet snake; and the pompous, priggish businessman whose handsome son has fallen, of course, for the one Sycamore who yearns for a simpler — well, more normal — life.

The Antaeus space, in a storefront, is very different from A Noise Within's, with its lights, rigging, traps, amd sound system. The contrast was pushed further by the curious distance between the playwrights' own stances to their subjects: Shaw can't help being as moralistic as the prigs he satirizes, in insisting on the illogic and inconsistency of their "values," while Kaufman anf Hart are content with Marx Brothers zaniness, preaching by example rather than argument.

The Antaeus production was a delightful jumble of props, costumes, voices, attitudes, and gags, delightfully in your face; the Dilemma kept its place, separated from its audience, presenting itself rather soberly. Each approach has its place; both were appropriately used. An instructive polarity, instructive, as Horace requires, and delightful.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING completely different: a late Shakespeare play, completely new to me. I've read Timon of Athens and Pericles, at least, though it was getting om sixty years ago and I have no recollectioon of them now; but until Saturday I was completely innocent of Cymbeline. O ye Muses, what a magnificent play!

Devices familiar from many other plays in the Canon — sleeping potions thought fatal, long-lost brothers, a disobedient daughter waking to love, the aging benevolent tyrant, rustic horseplay, among others — are reworked here to what seems to me a completely new and finally completely total resolution. There seems no doubt Shakespeare wrote this, the characters and the lines are unmistakable; but the result doesn't feel like a Shakespeare play, its feet in the 16th century. This is modern, new, Baroque. What a pleasure that Noise Within gives us this play in the wake of the Corneille romance The Illusion,, mounted last spring. They make a splendid case, these two productions, for the idea that a sort of Pirandellian Modernism was going on three centuries avant la lettre.

Bart DeLorenzo's direction places Cymbeline in legendary Rome-threatened Britain, appropriately, but softens the place-time specificity to underline its abstraction of universality and fantasy. The play's also intelligently framed by a Prologue in modern dress, divided into a pair of compères in formal suits, telegraphing the theme of counterparts, syzygy and resolution. Given the close proximity of the plays I couldn't help seeing Kaufman and Hart's Grandpa Sycamore in this Cymbeline, Alice Sycamore in Imogen; I don't think anyone would have minded.

I was distracted by a young audience whose laughter seemed inappropriate at times, but there I go moralizing; The Bard clearly enjoys my discomfort, and continues his puzzling and disorienting seriocomic lurching. Even in spite of the intrusive canned music I left the theater enthusiastic, excited, transported; this was truly a memorable night. Why on earth is Cymbeline so rarely produced?

The Doctor's Dilemma, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Bart DeLorenzo: A Noise Within, 3353 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through November 25, 2012;
You Can't Take It With You, by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Gigi Bermingham: Antaeus, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, through December 9, 2012
Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare, directed by Dámaso Rodriguez: A Noise Within, through November 18, 2012

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