Sunday, November 06, 2016

Parallel narratives

Pasadena, California, November 6, 2016—

BEAR WITH ME: I am thinking at the keyboard: how to describe my reactions to two recent productions of Tom Stoppard plays.

I don't like to miss any chance of seeing a Stoppard play. For far too long I refused to see Travesties, his first big success, because I thought (from what I had read, always a poor way to approach an intellectual decision) he was infringing on the creative property of one of his subjects, James Joyce. 

(Joyce, Stein, Ives, Cage, Picasso, Duchamp: my double trio of heros in my formative youth.)

It was only the press and critical noise that attended Arcadia, many years later, that persuaded me finally to confront Stoppard on the boards, and I haven't really looked back since. I find his range, his characterization, his language quite fascinating. I rarely leave a performance of Stoppard without thinking, and usually thinking of writing. His work is literally inspiring.

Alas, it is also vulnerable. The two most recent productios we've seen — The Hard Problem at ACT in San Francisco, two or three weeks ago; Arcadia at A Noise Within here in Pasadena, yesterday — both suffered, in my view, from vocal delivery. To so distracting a degree that my mind, old and tired as it's been recently, simply shut down.

Stoppard's plays demand a certain mental effort from the viewer. His literary, historical, philosophical references come thick and fast; they are central to his plot and suffuse the atmosphere within which it moves.

Like most engaging plays, his move through dialogue, and his lines are often fast and brittle, like Noel Coward's, while also frequently evasive and elliptical. And more often than not a character momentarily sidelined and silent will be doing something — whether reacting facially or stroking a tortoise — that has to be noticed, even though another part of the stage seems to be the chief focus of the moment.

In both these productions the thick grainy material of Stoppard's play was lost, at least to me, in a swamp of extravagant English accent. American theater companies so frequently succumb to this. It's obvious that Stoppard's characters, like those in much of Shakespeare, are English: why must their vocal delivery wear highly colored St. Andrew's crosses? 

The Noise Within Arcadia was particularly offensive in this respect, taking both the 19th- and the 20th-century characters well over the top: meant I think merely to be occasionally arch, this production turns them into burlesques. That works in a play like The Imaginary Invalid, seen the previous evening: it doesn't work in a serious dramatic contempation.

On the other hand there was much to recommend here: the acting was subtle (apart from vocal delivery), the characters well developed, the pacing both measured and rhythmic (I would like two intermissions, not one), the physical staging both attractive and suggestive.

I'm not sure I felt ACT's The Hard Problem was as successful a staging. Like the Indian Ink of a few seasons ago, it relied on an excessively wide and generally shallow physical setting, which subconsciously invites a similar view of the play itself. But I write this weeks after seeing it, and out of sorts about these productions generally, and will stop here.

LAST NIGHT, across town at Firelight Theatre on Vermont Street, we saw a play of a completely different character: The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare), by Daniel Henning.  

Henning, who told me after the performance that he had long been a student of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, had the ingenious idea of mapping that event — what is know, historically, and what has been hypothesized in endless speculations — on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. JFK is of course Caesar; Brutus is Lyndon Johnson, Cassius is J. Edgar Hoover, and so on. (Giving the part of the Soothsayer to JFK's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, is brilliant.)

The action begins with preparations for the Dallas motorcade, duriing which conspirators fear the president's overwhelming popularity will make him almost a king; it extends five years forward, ending in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy — who is, of course, Marc Anthony.

It sounds like a gimmick, but It really works. I've complained here, from time to time, about the unfortunate productions of Shakespeare that result from well-meaning attempts to "bring Shakespeare to the modern audience," when what's really needed is to bring the modern audience to Shakespeare. Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival has even determined to commission 37 "translations" of Shakespeare into contemporary English.

They'd do well to consider mounting a production of Henning's play, preferably with a Julius Caesar using the same cast.  They could, in fact, hire the cast we saw last night: they were excellent.

Here the accents of individual characters was used to good effect. Time Winters, as LBJ, insinuated a soft Texan drawl into Shakespeare's "untranslated" English; Ford Austin's JFK and Chad Brannon's RFK ironically modulated a Boston accent, bringing the dimension of cultural distinction to the plot.

The play belongs to LBJ and J Edgar Hoover, the latter played magnificently by Tony Abatemarco. Their scenes were electric, whether exploding or barely contained. I will never be persuaded that LBJ was in any way complicit in the Dallas tragedy, but that's beside the point: this is a fascinating, important drama; it deserves to enter the repertory.

No comments: