Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Desire Under the Elms" on B'way Spring 2009

Desire Under the Elms at the St. James Theatre .

The curtain rises revealing a boulder-strewn set. No elms. Hard surfaces. Unfriendly terrain. A dense wooden house hovers above suspended from thick ropes. A hog is draining over a tub. Two sweat- and dirt-streaked men drag a flat laden with rocks and still another boulder. They work together silently, weary, old, strong. An old iron stove rises, a kitchen table, a slighter, younger man cooks and sets the table. The inner scene of the house disappears into the floor, and the house is lowered on its thick ropes until it settles gently on the stage. The younger man comes out on the porch and clangs a harsh dinner bell. It’s fascinating. Then they start to speak.

I remember an O’Neill production I liked. It was in Swedish.

Visually pleasing as the opening is, all the actions of hard work on a hard farm (they farm rocks?) are done in silence. The act of gutting a pig is silent but for the slap of the entrails hitting the pail. When the elder brothers finally speak, they shout out to the audience. It is largely exposition in the annoying fake dialect O’Neill wrote to tell his audience, “these people are different from you and me.”

Director Robert Falls choreographed some beautiful s tory telling far from the harsh realism of O’Neill’s play. Carla Gugino’s Abby danced hers, reaching from her silent heart. Pablo Shreiber’s Eben – the production’s eye candy –did his choreography diligently, but not from the heart. Brian Dennehy as patriarch Ephraim shouted his mumbles but was physically strong, lumbering, proud, frightened, broken. The O’Neill characters are so well-drawn they’re hewn. Visually, their s tory unfolds and it’s riveting. But as soon as those sorry bastards open their mouths to shout incomprehensible dialect out to the audience, they don’t just lose me, they push me away.

Carla Gugino does not appear tiny on the small screen, and I don’t recall her appearing tiny in the Roundabout’s “After the Fall” several years back. As Abby, she looks tiny, breakable, hardly a farmwoman. Were the men all that big? Mr. Schreiber, while working on the physique required for this role in this production, should have given an elocution coach equal time to his physical trainer. Most of his speech was garbled until he spoke softly at the end of the play. Neither he nor the actors strenuously playing his brothers Peter (Boris McGiver) and Simeon (Daniel Stewart Sherman) had any vocal modulation, so nothing they said meant anything. What they did meant a great deal; these are lumbering, growling, physical beings, pounding the Earth for mere subsistence. McGiver’s Peter occasionally did little dances as he struggled to find words to express himself. Vocally, he was almost as monotone as Sherman ’s Simeon. Similarly when Dennehy finally spoke quietly and clearly (about the cows), the change in modulation made those moments work.

This is a visual presentation, operatic, grand guignol without the humor. If you want eye candy (isn’t that what television is for?), Mr. Schreiber and Ms. Gugino provide it.

Quibbling note – the play is supposed to take place in New England in the 1850s. Carla Gugino’s Abby was not dressed as a woman of the mid 19th century would be dressed. And this did not appear to be New England . And there weren’t any elms. Unless they’d been chopped down to make that looming house.

If only they didn’t speak (and for this production that means shout for every actor, even Gugino), I don’t mind the predictable story . If only.

-- MM

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