Sunday, September 13, 2009

Two Reviews from Spring 2009

Merchant of Venice at BAM – The Propeller Company.
The Propeller Company, led by Edward Hall, does Shakespeare’s plays, in one way, as they would have been done in Shakespeare’s time, and in another way, not at all the way Shakespeare’s company would have played them. As in Shakespeare’s time, all roles are played by men. I’ve seen Propeller productions before, and they’re generally quite exciting. Think of the lovers’ ‘fight scene’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream with men playing the women. It becomes a real fight and enormous fun.

But that was then. May 2009, Edward Hall’s production of Merchant of Venice is set inexplicably in a prison. It was an odd conceit -- doing all-male productions does not entail finding real places where there would be only men, so why did Hall feel a prison was needed for this? Pre-show, I’m not willing to read what the director or company say about the production – if their execution of the plan succeeds, I’d know it. It didn’t.

The cast's gradual entrances into the 2-level jail set (that resembles other sets they've used in its configuration, adding locks and bars) were intriguing, but after the initial violence, the prison setting became pointless. It doesn't work in any way for Belmont, so all the Portia scenes were forced by the irrational setting and by a fellow too young and inexperienced and annoying to be the heroine of the piece. These guys all know how to speak the speech, but some of 'em just ain't got it.

As Shylock, Richard Clothier was marvelous. Simple, clear, unsentimental. The Antonio (Bob Barrett) wasn't awfully likeable, even at the end when he's usually portrayed as someone equal to Portia. Jack Tarlton's Bassanio was cute with a Scots accent (that the silly people behind us presumably didn't get). Lancelot Gobbo appeared to be a guard reminiscent of the kapos. There was no dog but Shylock. At any rate, Gobbo was first rate. Of the men playing female roles, Jon Trenchard's Jessica was best. Simple, clear.

A noticeable number of people did not return from intermission. Some of these people had silly reasons -- like they couldn't understand the varied accents onstage.

Briefly, I didn't care for the production, but it was interesting enough to sit through and then talk through. We learn more when someone else's conceit doesn't work, I believe, than when it does.

The Cherry Orchard at BAM. The Bridge Project.
Last night I saw The Cherry Orchard. I’ve never been fond of the play, but last night I saw an entirely new Cherry Orchard at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. Tom Stoppard did not merely write a new adaptation based on a new translation. He took a new translation and wrote a new play. It has the same scenes as the old play. The same characters, the same events, the same story, it’s all the same. But he made no attempt to recreate every bit of dialogue that is in the original. He and director Sam Mendes and the members of The Bridge Project created a new play honoring Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but bringing this new one to the new century. The company worked with a living, changeable script that grew with the nurturing cast every day of the rehearsal process. The result is vibrant, funny, pathetic, all the things Chekhov would want it to be.

Sinead Cusack glows in the lead, Ranevskaya, who is so similar to the lead ladies in most of Chekhov. A woman you want to shake. At least, as a middle class feminist, I most certainly do. Ranevskaya is not ungenerous, she’s imprudent. She gives large amounts of money away, but she’s borrowed that money. She is in debt, borrows, spends. She did not lose the Cherry Orchard on her own, but she’s the one who does lose it. She has two daughters, the younger Anya played sweetly, naively by Morven Christie, the elder Varya played by the tall and gaunt Rebecca Hall. I’ve seen Ms. Hall once before and disliked her work intensely. I do not believe in playing Pinter pauses in Shakespeare’s monologues at all, let alone in the comedies. When directed by her father Sir Peter, she is self-indulgent and untrue to the character. Last night was different. Last night she was true to Varya, the put-upon, responsible, intelligent, unloved daughter. Oh, it’s not that her mother doesn’t care about her. But Varya is the adopted daughter, not the cute one. And Ranevskaya treats her like a slave. The boss of the slaves, but a slave nonetheless. Varya is the chatelaine, with the keys a housekeeper should wear at her waist. Varya loves the risen peasant, the efficient businessman Lopakhin, played to perfection by Simon Russell Beale. It is probable that Lopakhin loves her right back, but he’s so busy working and making money and rising above the slave status of his father and grandfather, that he cannot express his feelings for Varya. Near the end of the play Ranevskaya (Cusack) tells him he ought to propose, and sets up the circumstance when he can. He tries, he even gets down on his knees. He fails. It’s a quiet, devastating scene.

Dakin Matthews played Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik, another landowner, whom I thought might be related. Perhaps distantly he is. Matthews is hilarious. A bear of a man, he seemes to have a touch of narcolepsy in that he'll nod out mid sentence with a glass of wine in his hand. Less than a minute later he awakens and continues from where he left off. He dances, he loses money, he finds money, his life revolves about finding money to pay the interest on the mortgage. Ranevskaya and her brother and Boris Borisovich are all in the same boat with holes punched in the bottom. Pishchik will swim, not sink, because the world is like that, and some Englishman showed up on his land and found "white chalk" and paid him for use of the land.
This play is full of social issues, the audience invited to side first with one point of an argument, then the other, then both, and Stoppard and his Russians rise to the fore. There’s even a scene reminiscent of one in the first play of his Coast of Utopia trilogy – with the rich landowners (in fact the landowners in The Cherry Orchard are no longer rich, they’ve frittered away their money, and the land is up to its cherry blossoms in debt) lolling about, the back wall rises to reveal the shadows of the former slaves, now free persons, standing in darkness still, but coming forward to take their place in the new Russia. When Lopakhin actually purchases the Cherry Orchard at auction, his head spins, he is in shock; Ranevskaya slips off her chair into a ball center stage and weeps while Lopakhin runs around the stage knocking down the chairs that are now his, the chairs that represent the trees in the Cherry Orchard that he will cut down, changing the great estate into land with possibilities of working class ownership. One tract of land becomes many in his new world. Daughter Anya, in love with her dead brother’s tutor Pyotr Trofimov, is free once the land is gone. The rest of the family cannot bear it, but the family doesn’t deserve to keep what they have squandered, either.

The Servants. The servants are eating slop in the kitchen because there isn’t any money to buy better. The servants are allowing anyone, passersby, to sleep over in the servants’ quarters. This appalls Varya, her ordered world, however difficult, becoming disordered. She and Lopakhin, the workers of the play, could together create a caring transition from the old world to the new. But, as Varya says, she cannot propose to him. Only he can take that action, and he falls short.

Ranevskaya’s daughters are grown, but their governess still lives with them, and accompanied the younger daughter to Paris. The governess (Charlotta, played by Selina Cadell oddly and delightfully) performs magic tricks for the guests, and questions her place in this new world. With the dissolution of the estate, where does the governess go. She asks and gets no answer.
They who are caretakers to the landowners, who know the secrets, who know their station, who are as dependent on the landowners as the landowners are on them. The landowners, of course, Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev (an eccentric, a self-centered yet loving fool who cannot cease speaking nothings, played honestly by Paul Jesson), while never unkind, look upon the free servants as part of their inheritance, as part of their estate, until the estate is gone. Not a thought is given to what happens to them when the house is demolished and the Cherry Orchard chopped down.

Josh Hamilton plays Yasha, a footman to Ranevskaya. He is above his station. He drinks all the wine he’s supposed to be serving, while standing straight and respectful. He has been with her in Paris and he cannot bear to be here in the Russian countryside. He’s a son of a bitch who won’t even see his mother, who’s been waiting for him in the house for days. He is the ugly part of the new world that Lopakhin is bringing about. Hamilton is great. He is sly, he is quiet, he is relaxed and powerful and wry. Richard Easton plays Firs, the old servant. Really old. Remarkably old, doddering. In direct counterpoint to Hamilton’s servant, Easton’s servant is the loyal family retainer who chides the landowners as if they were children when they don’t wear a warm enough coat. He hears some things and not all so many of his answers become rambling non-sequiturs. Easton is just marvelous at this. That he cares for these people – and dislikes the new age servant, Yasha, intensely – is perfectly clear. And he is the final loser in the play. The rich have lost their land and house, the new landowner takes them to the station. The new age servant has lied and said Firs has been taken to hospital. Firs is left alone in the house. He comes out to a room empty but for one chair, into which he falls, and from which he falls to lie on the floor. The society changes, the old are discarded.

One more star I didn’t mention, because I’m not sure what to say about him. Ethan Hawke. His Pyotr Trofimov seems an extension of the character he played in Coast of Utopia. In that trilogy, he was bombastic and annoying and probably right on target for the character. In fact, his reappearance in the third play, which I found frightfully dull, was a delightful wake up call. Last night he was fine. Not special, sometimes annoying. Of all the actors on stage, he was the one who did not quite fit. But then, when Simon Russell Beale is onstage, who’d listen to Ethan Hawke.

(Not to worry, Hawke lovers. He plays Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, and he’s alive on stage, truly delightful.)

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