Friday, September 12, 2008

Ashland 4: Two American Classics


WE SAW SEVEN PLAYS in six days last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, only once having to squeeze in two performances on a single day. I've told you about the Shakespeare: here's a roundup of the remaining three. I won't go into details; click on the play-title links for OSF's webpages (casts are available there by clicking "Artists").

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is a classic, of course, stripping away all but the irreducible generic from its portrait of small town USA, turn of the previous century. There are those who no longer find it relevant; who think of it as simple-minded and sentimental. I'm not one of those; Chay Yew apparently was -- until he reread the play on being asked to direct it here in his OSF debut.

To my taste the overall success of this production is muted for much of its duration. Played in the outdoor Elizabethan Theater, it lacks two kinds of intimacy it would gain indoors: the stage is too apparent within its setting, but the audience, concentrating on that stage, loses contact among itself. I think Our Town is almost a community meeting; it profits from being shared by an audience aware of itself as part of the Grover's Corners community. Our Town, summoned up by its Stage Manager and playing almost entirely without props or sets, is meant to engage, even enter, the collective consciousness of its audience; for that to work, the audience needs to be aware of itself as a group. The darkness of the Elizabethan Theater audience makes that very difficult: the evening is like a nostalgic family snapshot, sixty years old, printed with far too much contrast, losing informative details in the dark.

But this production was evenly cast, beautifully narrated, nicely scaled; and it closes very effectively, melting away the specificity of individual life into the beautiful and reassuring inevitability and permanence of the future collective history that is death. I think it a magnificent play, and probably particularly one to see during a presidential campaign.

Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge is another American classic, another essay on family and commmunity, another play with immediate political relevance. Staged in the (indoors) Angus Bowmer Theatre, it filled the wide stage with realism and action equally effective at presenting the exterior — dockside Brooklyn and its Italian-immigrant community in the late 1940s — and the interior — family life; psychological drama; challenge, defeat, and retribution.
Where Our Town is a philosophical romantic comedy, A View from the Bridge is a full-fledged Greek tragedy, lacking only the unity of time (it represents several months, not a single day, in the running its infernal machine).

For a number of years Miller's been consigned, I think, to a dusty corner of American theater. Setting his plays on specific American history — Italo-American Brooklyn, Puritan witch-hunt, middle-America traveling salesman — seemed to date him. But he wrote for his immediate present, couching the political issues that concerned him in parables his immediate audience would recognize. If the next generation lost interest, the one after that sees the universality, or rather the again timely, in this work. We continue to need it, alas.

Luis Alfaro's Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner is another matter. In Alfaro's words "a comedy about serious things," it concerns a woman who continues to eat, to inflate, finally to change utterly. Her own journey is set within the distractions of her family — a two-dimensional husband, a nymphomaniacal sister — and two rather undeveloped outsiders: her sister's cop boyfriend and an enigmatic Chinese woman met at a fat farm.

The production is well acted. (We saw an understudy, Kate Mulligan, in the lead role; she was absolutely first-rate.) In fact, I'd say the actors do more with the roles than the playwright has given them; credit has to go to Tracy Young's direction, too. But the production rides on a gimmick of stage mechanics* that ultimately becomes tiresome, turning Alfaro's "magic realism", I think, into bogus magic. I kept thinking there was a play here, somewhere, in fact; but that despite everyone's best intentions and efforts it never quite emerged; it floated away.

*Since writing this I've learned that the second act has been restaged and that "gimmick" — a flying harness — has been eliminated from the production. After two months, it became too much physical strain for the actress; presumably this is why we saw an understudy in the role.

at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland:
Thornton Wilder: Our Town, running through Oct. 11
Arthur Miller: A View from the Bridge, through Nov. 1
Luis Alfaro: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, through Nov. 2


John Whiting said...

I once saw a London production of Our Town in which the Stage Manager was Alan Alda. He delivered his monologs sitting on the edge of the stage; we were in the front row about six feet away. It was one of the most unforgettable theatrical experiences I ever had.

Charles Shere said...

Amazing. Wasn't that uncomfortable for you? Did you ever make eye contact with him?

John Whiting said...

Uncomfortable? Not a bit! And yes, we frequently made eye contact; we were almost in front of him. I felt honored by the intimacy—let me tell you a story.

One of the cast members was Rowena Cooper, an English actress [I know I’m supposed to say actor, but it sticks in my craw] whom Mary knew because she had taught her child. She told us that Alda had to leave the show earlier than planned because of a Hollywood commitment. It could not continue without him, and so the cast would loose several weeks’ salary. In compensation, Alda paid them all out of his own pocket.

John Whiting said...

By one of life’s constant coincidences, Mary has just shown me this in yesterday’s Guardian. It’s from an interview with English playright and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar:

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

Alan Alda. He commuted from LA to New York for 11 years while he was in M*A*S*H so as not to disrupt the family, but also found time to advocate for equal rights for women. He's warm, witty, generous and, I'm honoured to say, a good friend.