Monday, March 8, 2010

The Red Bull Theatre’s production of John Webster's “The Duchess of Malfi,” in terms of blood-letting and blood-spraying, is comparable to “Evil Dead: The Musical” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”

The verse is edited and tasty, the story dark with treachery, illicit love, incestuous longings, and madness. It’s all about blood.

St. Clements Theatre boasts a raked audience offering clear views of its proscenium stage. For this production, the stage is draped in a garish red. There are levels to play, and places to hide galore. (The photo below is from St. Clement’s web site and shows a piano that was not onstage for the production. Imagine the left and right sides, and the back, are draped in red, and that an upper level affords a window, if you will, into the private lodgings of the Duchess and her family.)

Lots of hot blooded people in this play. The hot blood of the first half of the play leads to messy blood letting in the second half. Blood spraying, splattering, by guns and knives. There’s also strangling in full view of the audience, and smothering, and a bashing. Yes, everything’s sexual in this play. Knives, guns, and 3 buckets of blood. And a lot of great quotable lines. The dramaturg has cut quite a lot to get this play to run in approximately two hours, and since it’s been decades since I read the script I couldn’t tell you what was cut, except that the first half speeds along very quickly.

The play opens in the dark. Almost dark. For her entrance to downstage center, the Duchess wears widow’s black, which she drops to the floor. She steps into the white dress she wears for her widowhood and remarriage as the lights rise.

Christina Rouner is elegant and tall. This Duchess is in no way subservient to her brothers – she exudes confidence. As a widow, she is still the Duchess, a powerful woman. And, we are soon to learn, she’s in love.

The widowed Duchess’ brothers do not want her to remarry because they want to retain her power. Gareth Saxe plays her twin brother Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria. Ferdinand has more reasons than policy to keep his sister from remarrying; that would be naughty lusting which makes it unbearable to him for her to be with anyone else. Her other brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, deliciously played by Patrick Page, is all about power. He has his own mistress – who, of course, is married to a loyal subject, Castruccio, one of two roles slickly played by Eric Hoffmann. Castruccio’s wife Julia is unsubtly played by Heidi Armbruster.

Meanwhile, as soon as she is free (that is, the official mourning period is over), the Duchess makes woo to the man of her choice for husband: her steward Antonio, sweetly played by Matthew Greer. This of course will not do, since she’s royal and he’s not. Nevertheless, they marry, albeit secretly, witnessed by the Duchess’ loyal gentlewoman, Cariola, a strong Carol Halstead.

The Cardinal of Aragon is instantly revealed as a swine by his treatment of a loyal soldier named Bosola. No fool, brother Ferdinand enlists the aid of the disaffected soldier, promoting him in his sister’s household, and making Bosola his personal “intelligencer” in his sister’s court. Over time, Bosola will have a great deal to report. Such as three children born to the widowed Duchess.

Children -- the Puppets by Jessica Scott are just wonderful, as is the way the actors deal with them. The first time I saw the eldest son -- probably 3 or 4 years old -- carried on the upper level at the back of the stage, I thought, good god, what kind of people would use a real child to hear this story? And then I understood. Really, he was that good, and the people carried him as if he were quite real, needing to be sheltered from some sights, and comforted into sleep. Sound effects by Nathan Leigh of the baby’s cries were remarkably realistic as well. “Seeing” the children had a powerful effect.

Bosola was especially compelling as played by Matthew Rauch. In his first entrance, I found him sympathetic. Soon, though, since we have met and come to care for the victims of his “intelligencing,” he grows more and more vile until his ultimate acts of depravity put him beyond the pale. No matter how despicable he is, though, Bosola addresses the audience, talking to us as if we should agree with him. Which, of course, is just what he should do. Bosola is very well written and even better acted.

The brothers learn of the Duchess’ children – initially believing she’s a fallen woman. The Duchess reassures her twin Ferdinand that she’s married to the father of her children, and somehow that makes it worse. The family flees, the Duchess is captured, and all hell breaks loose.

In the second half, with the Duchess imprisoned, all the trappings of grandeur (that is, those gaudy red curtains) are stripped away showing the bare stage and scaffolding, stair cases, all the entrances and exits that were hidden before. Now we see all. And I do mean all.

The second act opens with the Duchess imprisoned in darkness. Her crazy brother Ferdinand tortures her mentally. He surrounds her with lunatics, and little by little, believing her husband and eldest child dead (they’re actually safe in Milan), she’s losing it. Here comes the major anachronistic oddity of the play. This is my first Duchess, but I’d guess what was done for the poor Duchess going mad was rather outside the norm. Tired of traditional theatrical mad scenes, the director had the Duchess go completely bonkers – and who could blame her. While the lunatic men were molesting her and her gentlewoman, the Duchess is lifted into the air by four or five men, reminding me of a childhood viewing of the beginning of the rape of Aldonza in "Man of La Mancha." While the Duchess writhes above the men, a cable descends from on high. At its end is a microphone, which the Duchess takes. She then sings a sweet romantic Rodgers & Hart song (“Love You More Than Yesterday”) and has a whole fantasy with husband and brothers reconciling. It was amazing and fantastical. I sat with my mouth hanging open, I could hear my friend chuckling. Very, very odd. Interesting. But odd.

I cannot say why, but I quite enjoyed it.

Your typical Elizabethan or Jacobean tragedy traditionally ends with a lot of dead bodies on the stage. The Red Bull’s Duchess does not disappoint. The Duchess is murdered by Bosola and his mercenaries, strangled onstage, in full view. Slowly. Horrifying. Then Cariola is smothered, onstage, in full view, with plastic no less. Finally the third woman in the cast, the mistress of the Cardinal, foolishly taunts him with her knowledge, so he has her “kiss the book.” Which I thought meant “drink.” Apparently here, though, the book was poisoned. Heidi Arbruster’s Julia died downstage, in full view, like the other women in this play.


The Duchess reappears in her original white dress as a spirit (or a hallucination?), echoing words of warning to her naïve husband. Very effective. Of course, warning sweet Antonio does no good. He is one of the dead guys onstage at the end.

And the blood. What a lot of blood, spurting from all angles.

Don’t worry, though – there’s a happy ending. With everyone else dead, the eldest child of the Duchess and her true love Antonio will live to become Duke (of what is unclear), protected by Antonio’s good friend Delio. I was not particularly pleased with Haynes Thigden’s Delio – he is this play’s Horatio, but Thigden was weak, not in the same play as everyone else; he did not speak the speech as effortlessly as most of the others.

Well, what a play. All the leads die. Very violently – the program credits “Violence: J. David Brimmer.” That’s how it’s listed. How Jacobean.

Jesse Berger directed and adapted, along with dramaturg Laura Brown. In my opinion, directed very well. The cast was made up of pros, skilled, and largely very good classical performers.

Patrick Page’s Cardinal was slimy and smarmy; Gareth Saxe’s Ferdinand neurotic, psychotic -- he was a bit much, actually, but in a really fun way. Carol Halstead’s Cariola was simple and clear. Christina Rouner’s Duchess was witty, smooth, regal, loving, gutsy, lusty, and I was rooting for her all the way despite knowing she hadn’t a chance in manmade hell.

This was a fast moving sharp and clear production, eliciting emotional responses from audience as required.

Guns and knives. Knives and guns. The ways they’re used in this wild production, it’s hard to know which is worse. Finally, the exit music was an unusual rendition of “Que Sera Sera” which just had us laughing. I like the Red Bull Theatre!

I’m no expert in Webster, so the presumed cuts didn’t bother me, nor did the anachronisms. I enjoyed the evening. “The Duchess of Malfi” is running at St. Clement’s until the end of March, it’s rarely done, and worth your time.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, looking for an old tattered copy of John Webster's plays.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

James Cameron is not king of the world

Just to see what all the fuss is about, I saw ‘Avatar in 3D. I enjoyed it. I do have issues with it; it can be discussed and demolished politically, theoretically, artistically, but I enjoyed it. I can live without this 3D stuff inducing nausea with swooping creatures heading downhill from a mountaintop, and really dislike people saying it’s here to stay as if it’s needed. Just tell me a story.

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m operating under the belief that applying scientific advances to one set of goals will lead to accidental discoveries unlooked for, unhoped for in another area entirely. Otherwise the billions of dollars spent on this film cannot be justified.

The film starts as science fiction: That is, scientific advances and societal developments set up the premise of the story. The ‘avatars’ we set for ourselves on the Wii live merely in the virtual world; “Avatar” believes in comingling biology and information technology so as to allow avatars to be grown in reality and then inhabited by a transferred consciousness. Terrans, a.k.a. Americans, can actually grow a new being who is like the big blue people (elongated humanoid forms with waists so tiny their rib cages could not hold requisite organs. You know, like models, only more so. And blue.) living in this world that the military industrial complex wishes to conquer. The manufactured beings, avatars, do not have brains or souls. They require a wireless computer system transmitting instructions to the bodies from a human being (who presumably has a brain and a soul) within a scanner container that resembles a coffin.

Now that’s all well and good for the good guy scientists who only wish to expand their knowledge and understanding of this world, "Pandora." The bad guys in this movie are the military. This is all very easy to spot right off the bat.

The MacGuffin is a rock that floats, and the highest concentration of this rock is, of course, deep in the planet under the “Hometree” – the center of the Pandorans (called Na’vi) culture. Until, of course, the last quarter of the film when suddenly there are a lot more of the “People” from different places, nowhere near the “Hometree.” Hmmm. Sort of like Cain’s wife, apparently created in another county by another god. Unless, of course, it was an incestuous marriage. But that’s quite beside the point. Back to the MacGuffin, the floating rock much prized by corporate America as represented by a humorless Giovanni Ribisi. Much could be done with the floating rock. It isn't.

Think back to when James Cameron still cared about story, and some bells will ring. The military industrial complex of “Aliens” (sometimes known as Alien2) in which the vested interest of “The Company” was represented by the wonderful weasley Paul Reiser. If you're going to write a script with practically the same character performing the same function in the film, at least give Giovanni some fun stuff to do. Speaking of “Aliens,” remember Al Matthews as Sergeant Apone. Somebody was channeling him, his voice, and his dialogue in parts of “Avatar,” too.

So, Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, this poor Marine with a spinal injury and atrophying legs, who also loses his scientist brother. Sharing enough DNA, the Marine brother takes his scientist brother’s place and avatar in this very expensive project off-world. All this is fine and fun. Big Blue (that is, Jake Sully) learning to control his Avatar with his semi-conscious mind, leads us to the beautiful new world envisioned by Cameron and his many, many colleagues in production design and art direction. Great stuff. In this world, the people, the animals, the plants are all connected, sharing borrowed energy and eventually giving it back to the planet in death. Sounds like native Americans, doesn’t it. This is all lovely and could, if Cameron still cared about story, have provided a tool, a weapon, for the Na’vi people against the U.S. military. But fantasy is more expedient and provided more opportunity for explosions and ever more killing machines. Taking the more interesting route would have required thought and time directed toward issues having nothing to do with special effects, so “Avatar” departs the realm of science fiction and becomes fantasy. And that’s a shame.

The technology is quite amazing. From Peter Max painting over photography back in the Sixties, all the way to wiring actors so the computer can recreate them, their movements, their expressions, all of them, as a new species -- it’s marvelous really. Great stuff, without a doubt.

Zoe Saldana is clearly Zoe Saldana and terrific as Neytiri, who is essentially the Princess of the people, with a mother as spiritual leader and father the chief. Sigourney Weaver’s avatar would not pass for one of the Na’vi, but was witty, as was the fact of Weaver being cast as a scientist in the film – Ellen Ripley would probably not have liked her.

Stephen Lang is brilliantly over the top as the head honcho of the base who of course overrides the scientists and the corporate types. Back in 1951, the film “The Thing From Another World” showed us those scientists and military types clashing, and weren’t we all glad the military types led by Kenneth Tobey overrode the naïve scientists. Well, scientists had recently split the atom, and the military joes commented, “And didn’t that make the world happy.” Times change. “Avatar” takes place in 2154, and the good guys and bad guys are tougher to tell apart each generation.

A major problem with this story is that despite setting up certain scientific elements (biology and geology both), Cameron doesn’t follow up on these. He doesn’t think about the ways in which the natural world might believably (in science fiction mode) fight back against the technology of the invaders. Instead, those blue people that the U.S. military intends to conquer somehow, with bows and arrows and spears and just plain heart, somehow the Na’vi beat the machine and banish the interlopers from their world.


So it’s fun. It is not the best picture of the year, the script has too many breakdowns. When James Cameron puts as much thought into the story as the technology, when he stops rehashing his own stories and reversing even older stories that we watched as children, maybe then he’ll make a movie that stands on its own without 3D, without new technology. Just good old fashioned story telling. I look forward to that.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. It's time to watch the Oscars.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Tempest Lacking Spirit

Stephen Dillane enters the stage while the audience wanders in; they ignore him. He sits near the musician stage left, reading what looks like a script. Dillane’s Prospero is dressed in a raggedy suit and messy shirt, no shoes. Well, it’s a desert island. What fools wear shoes in the sand?

Yes, there is sand. At stage center is a large ring filled with sand. Shades of Ingmar Bergman – the central playing area is a circle. No matter – think of Prospero’s magic as producing a circus, and you’re set. Also on stage left, heading off behind the musician, are rows of bookshelves leading to Prospero’s “cell” on his magical island. Prospero’s library survived the sea quite well.

The balancing act is on stage right -- another musician sits amongst instruments, beyond which are stacks of kindling.

There’s some Beckett going on here. In an interview, Dillane confirmed that Beckett informed his performance as Jaques in the “As You Like It” (hereinafter AYLI) we saw last month – Dillane had been looking for the Beckett aspect of Jaques (who knows why), and I believe he found it.

The scenic design was the Beckett aspect of “The Tempest” at the BAM Harvey last week. It’s spare. Suggestive. To me, hopeful.

Although the program says the play runs 2 ¾ hours with intermission, clearly a different choice has been made since the program was printed – the play is now running without an intermission for 2 ¼ hours.

Dillane’s Prospero starts the show. He stands and pulls on a tattered thick robe and a fabulous if molting feathered belt. The audience quiets down. Prospero picks up an ordinary galvanized bucket and walks the circumference of the central disk, flicking water onto the sand. This action raises Spirits, and the action of the play begins.

Christian Camargo as Ariel enters from a doorway set 6 or 8 or 10 feet high in the back wall; he comes down a ramp through a newly formed pond that has appeared across the back third of the stage. Simultaneously two minion sprites (the Audrey and Celia of AYLI) cross the pond, and the threesome create The Tempest tossing about the ship of the King of Naples and his entourage –

  • Alonso, King of Naples (Jonathan Lincoln Fried – he was enjoyable on occasion, but too often a cipher)
  • Alonso’s son and heir Ferdinand (Edward Bennett – the excellent Oliver of AYLI, destined lover of Miranda, he does all he can here)
  • the “honest old counselor” Gonzalo (a once again unrecognizable Alvin Epstein – he’s a magician, he’s Sherlock Holmes),
  • Sebastian, sleazy brother of the King of Naples (Richard Hansell). I liked his work; his moments of hesitation in the plot against his brother were a welcome nuance, and the witless banter between Sebastian and Antonio worked well, although there were times I didn’t hear them –sound design issue.
  • Antonio, sleazier brother of Prospero, is the usurping Duke of this play (Michael Thomas, who played usurping and usurped Dukes in AYLI), is quite amusing in the funny bits, but not powerful in his evil intentions. I never believed he’d succeed. And
  • Adrian, a lord in priestly garb (Aaron Krohn, who did such a fine job as Silvius in AYLI). Krohn does as good a job here, simple, clear, sincere. I can’t wait to see him in larger roles, bringing the clarity and honesty to us for longer periods of time.
  • Let us not forget the sole representative of the solid, hard-working, competent persons of the ship: the Boatswain, well played by Ross Waiton. He mutters, he growls at his aristocratic passengers as Ariel manipulates each character in turn while stage managing the storm.

Problem: The dialogue in the storm scene is largely indiscernible. (The problem being the sound design. Ever been to a rock concert where the singer’s mike is just not that level above the guitars that it needs to be? Like that.)

No problem: The emotions read strong. Everybody’s going to die.

Meanwhile, back on the island, Prospero’s daughter Miranda is quite upset, having seen the pitching ship and fearing all hands are lost. She cannot help but question her father if his magics are the cause.

Even at a distance, she appears much older than the 15 years the script sums for us. Generally I don’t care about this sort of thing. Shakespeare’s no walk in the park, and no one in his/her right mind expects very young actors to play his characters convincingly. And again, the woman is competent at scansion, if lacking in believable feeling. However, in this production, the age problem adds insult to injury. While not as annoying as she was as Rosalind in AYLI (to be mathematically fair, Miranda has far less to say than Rosalind), Juliet Rylance is so wrong for Miranda I cannot understand what’s what here. In a repertory company, my understanding has always been that the person who had the lead in one play cannot expect to get the lead in the next. Why isn’t Michelle Beck (AYLI’s underused Celia) playing Miranda? I’d be even happier to see Jenni Barber in this role (AYLI’s delightful Audrey). Both women are more than capable of doing a much better Miranda than Rylance. As usual, no one confers with me first in these casting decisions, so there she was again.

Note: Whoever is writing program notes for this series of Bridge Project productions is not selling these shows at all. Sam Mendes’ “Director’s Note” is mostly Ted Hughes, and Mr. Hughes is not a theatrical. He is a poet and as such not qualified to produce a play. Yes, I know, some of my best friends (not a euphemism!) are poets and theatricals (writers, directors, actors, producers); nevertheless, these are different forms. In college I recall totally dismissing an alleged theatre teacher because he called Shakespeare a poet. (You remember college: Zero tolerance.) Sure he’s a poet. In the Sonnets. But Shakespeare put the “W” in “PlayWright,” not the “P” in “Poet.” This is not poetry. This is Theatre. Plays are wrought. Not to mention (what an odd, contradictory phrase), the provided synopses of both AYLI and The Tempest belong in Cliff Notes, not BAM programs. Yes, I’m done.

Shake it off.” I am shaking it off, and that reminds me: Does Prospero actually say “Shake it off” in this play?? The wonder of this modern-feeling phrase coming from Dillane’s Prospero rippled through the audience. But sure enough, it’s not Dillane. It’s Prospero: There it is: Iii, line 307 in my Pelican paperback.

As a rule, I think Stephen Dillane is swell (and I loved his unusual Beckettian Jaques). However, when his Prospero spoke, he started off shouting. I don’t like shouters. I can never forget Herbert Berghof’s dictum: “If you shout you’d better have a damned good reason.” Then Dillane’s tone -- and volume -- modulated. OK. Although perhaps a bit too much in the softer direction. He was certainly fascinating, and what he did certainly coincided with Mendes’ presumed vision. I think that he was playing too much of Prospero’s final realizations too early in the play. It’s a choice. Apparently not mine. Still, I would watch and listen to Dillane do anything.

Alvin Epstein as the good Gonzalo – three quarters of the time I either could not hear or understand him. This has become a continuing problem – while his behavior tells all, I do want to hear the words. So, all students of theatre, watch him to understand what your body, its movement, its stillness, its stance, can communicate. But put those marbles in your mouths and practice so I can hear the words with which Shakespeare gifted us.

Christian Camargo as Ariel. I had concern when I saw that casting – although I liked Camargo in The Hurt Locker and Dexter, I disliked his Orlando in AYLI. As far as I’m concerned, no romantic leads for Camargo. As Ariel, he was interesting. He sings very well. Physically an odd choice; he does not move as one might imagine a sprite does. When he is very still, however, particularly when gazing lovingly on Prospero, I felt the character came through more clearly. However, were I to cast a male in the role of Ariel, he’d be…Baryshnikov. Who may not be available these days for a world tour, but it’s a guideline. Baryshnikov-like.

This is the second time I’ve seen Aaron Krohn, and although he’s not “pulling focus,” he’s more interesting than many of his colleagues on the stage. He just gives us …more heart, and this while he’s giving clean readings and a clear character. Ariel is a spirit not a human but that doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t have heart. Yes, that means I might well have enjoyed Krohn’s interpretation of Ariel over Camargo’s.

Ron Cephas Jones as Caliban won me over. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – Caliban’s role can certainly be political. His entrance was marvelous, bursting out of the sand through a hole that was not there before, from the depths of the earth. A terrific bit o’ theatre, as my friend Stef would have said. His speech is harsh and poetic, and he gets it. Jones’s Caliban works. Jones’s body is not monstrous, but his Caliban is a distorted, growling, groveling, lascivious boot licker, the dregs of humanity -- but human he most certainly is.

When describing the passengers on the doomed ship tossed about in the tempest, I left out some people. We didn’t see them for a while, but happily we meet the shipwrecked Trinculo and Stephano. Not the upper echelons of society, but much more fun than the more illustrious characters.

Anthony O’Donnell, the very same delightful actor who played Corin in AYLI, plays the plaid-clad clown Trinculo. Hilarious. Dare I say “perfect.” Thomas Sadoski (AYLI’s appealing Touchstone) is a fine drunken Stephano. The comic scenes in this production were truly funny, unforced. Laughter abounded. Not relying on some miraculously different interpretation, these pros just gave us damn funny scenes, timing right on every mark. Absolutely not as easy as it looked. Gems.

Visuals: Pleasing. Clever staging, in the scene in which Ariel sets Sebastian and Antonio up to show their evil against the King of Naples. A lot more clever staging with Ariel in the comic scenes between Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo.

Unfortunately, the hallucination of a spritely wedding was entirely earthbound, not in the slightest bit ethereal (despite the lovely singing led by Jenni Barber). It was not particularly amusing, not jolly, not beautiful. Prospero’s abrupt ending of it was a relief.

Let me be clear: I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed Stephen Dillane’s Prospero much but not all of the time. I enjoyed Camargo’s Ariel some but not all of the time. I enjoyed Anthony O’Donnell’s Trinculo every moment he was on and waited for his return. Also Sadoski’s Stephano and Jones’ Caliban: all the time.

The royals from Naples didn’t do much for me, although they were certainly clear and serviceable. And I do like Aaron Krohn -- his turn as Adrian (here combined with Francisco) was sincere and alive.

Miranda gets a thumbs down as stated earlier. I would have liked to see her understudy. Say no more.

This production is intelligent. Its intellectual choices are clear, as is most of the language, lots of which is heavily edited (I think everyone knows I don’t like long plays, but 2 ¼ hours? Shakespeare? Really?). The funny scenes are very funny. If you think “The Tempest” should tug at your heartstrings, you may be disappointed. However, put it all together: I enjoyed the production. Without strong feelings about this play, it’s hardly fair for me to analyze it any further so as to disagree with this, that and the other choice. Others will or have done that: e.g.,

My advice is to have fun, watch the light reflecting off the shallow pools onto the stage walls, and dream of summer.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Feeling young enough to not identify with Prospero....