Sunday, July 31, 2016

New Productions: Chekhov, Shakespeare, Wilde

Moya O’Connell and Neil Barclay in Uncle Vanya at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Uncle Vanya, staged by Jackie Maxwell (in her final season as artistic director), is the crown jewel among the offerings at the Shaw Festival this summer. (At least, among the shows I was able to see; unfortunately, I arrived too early to catch either Sweeney Todd or Strindberg’s The Dance of Death.) The production draws you in from the opening moment, where the old nanny, Marina (Sharry Flett, infusing the character’s grandmotherly warmth with ironic humor), calls Dr. Astrov (Patrick McManus) on his drinking, and you don’t break free of its spell until long after you’ve wandered out of the Court House, the ideal Shaw venue for Chekhov’s delicate, impressionistic “scenes of country life” because of its intimacy. (It’s where the company also performed a memorable Cherry Orchard in 2010.)

The cast is flawless. McManus gets at Astrov’s coarseness, especially but not exclusively in the second-act drunk scene with Vanya (Neil Barclay). That quality is alluded to in the text but generally doesn’t figure in the performance; both Laurence Olivier in the 1963 film of the famous Chichester Theatre production and Larry Pine in the 1994 André Gregory-Louis Malle movie Vanya on 42nd Street gave the doctor an elegant, aristocratic presence, and even Christopher Walken, who was a great Astrov on stage at American Repertory Theatre in 1988, didn’t choose to vulgarize him. I’ve sometimes liked McManus very much – as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and as Mazzini Dunn in Heartbreak House – but never as much as I did here. He’s marvelous with both the leading women, Moya O’Connell as Yelena, the much younger second wife of Serebryakov (David Schurmann, using his fine vocal instrument to underscore both the professor’s pretentiousness and his tendency to self-pity, which he’s painfully aware of but can’t control) and Marla McLean as Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya, in love in vain with Astrov. The third-act scene between the doctor and Yelena, where, out of kindness to her stepdaughter, she interrogates him about his feelings for her and he begins to suspect that it’s her coy way of reaching out to him herself, is one of the high points of the production. O’Connell has the poise of a model who’s acutely conscious of her own beauty, and in her early scenes her indolent detachment from the others and from this provincial environment she can’t warm up to is on the cusp of being unpleasant. But the actress’ project is to bring Yelena into clearer and clearer focus and the effect is to bring us into her orbit – to recognize her depths. The process begins at the top of act two, with her agonizing argument with her husband in the wee hours of a humid summer night, where we can see she’s imprisoned in an unhappy marriage; by the time she and Sonya have their reconciliation at the end of the act, get a little drunk and share confidences like schoolgirls, O’Connell has the audience firmly in her grasp. In this production Yelena’s attraction to the doctor is clear from the moment they’re alone together; there’s such distinct sexual tension between them as he shows her his environmental maps of the countryside that the pass he makes at her feels inevitable, even though she fights it. Vanya, who is also in love with her, calls her a “mermaid,” but in truth she’s a conventional woman who would no more cheat on her husband than she would walk out the door like Nora at the end of A Doll’s House.

McLean is a heartbreaking Sonya, especially when, after agreeing to her stepmother’s plan to find out how Astrov views her, she has second thoughts (“Maybe not knowing is better. At least you have hope”) and when she sees on Yelena’s face after their interview what she’s feared all along (“I see. He won’t come here anymore”). The scenes between McLean and McManus are studded with grace notes – moments I haven’t seen played exactly this way before. In act two, just before her tête-à-tête with Yelena, Sonya shares a late-night snack with the doctor and begs him to stop drinking because it doesn’t suit him. (When she refers insistently to his refinement, which his drinking sullies, in this production we think, She sees him so entirely through the eyes of love that she can’t see what we do: that his rural roughness is as much a part of him as his knowledge of the environment.) In every other Vanya in my theatregoing experience, Astrov is blind to Sonya’s feelings for him, though she goes so far as to ask him how he’d feel if she had a sister or a friend who’d fallen in love with him. Here, when he gets close to her it’s clear that he can sense her romantic outreach to him – the aura around their physical proximity foreshadows the aura around his closeness to Yelena in the next act, though in this scene it’s coming exclusively from Sonya. In their final exchange, before he leaves at the end of the play, you can see him wondering if perhaps he could entertain the thought of a life with Sonya and then dismissing the idea (it’s too late for him, he seems to be thinking), an inclination that is all woven up with his friendship with her, which he cherishes, and his fondness for the time he’s spent with her and Vanya and Marina in this house, a respite from the hard life he leads as a country doctor. Even now that the professor and Yelena have left to return to Moscow, he knows he can’t go back to those comfortable evenings because he’s promised Yelena that he won’t increase Sonya’s pain by continuing to visit.

Marla McLean & Moya O’Connell in Uncle Vanya. (Photo: Emily Cooper)
Neil Barclay is a bedraggled Vanya who makes his first entrance looking either hungover or still half-asleep, and there’s a little-lost-boy quality to his performance, even when he protests, “I’m forty-seven. It’s all over” and “Now I’m old and I can’t have anything.” Yet his Vanya is a sophisticate, adept at drawing-room chatter. His first put-downs of the professor – who was once his idol but whom he’s come to hate, as a symbol of everything that has prevented him from realizing the life he believes he should have had – are high comedy that mute the bitterness he truly feels, at least until he drifts off in the middle of a sentence and we sense how miserable he is. Barclay gets at Vanya’s self-hatred, though he makes a half-hearted attempt to carry it lightly and though he plays the role of a clown because it amuses Yelena and her being near him gives him something to hold onto. (Besides, he knows he’s a clown; he can’t help himself, any more than Serebryakov can help feeling sorry for himself because he’s old and suffering from physical complaints and he knows his wife has grown weary of him.) The actor does something lovely with the moment when Vanya murmurs to Sonya, alluding to his beloved dead sister, her mother, “If she only knew,” then he drags himself sadly out of the room. Barclay draws on his comic expertise to layer the tone of his performance, for instance making Vanya’s claim, “I could have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky” funny (because it’s ridiculous) and painful at the same time. He’s amazing in the scene where the professor unveils his plan to sell the estate and Vanya explodes, and at the end of the play, after they’ve made it up – superficially, at least – he looks paralyzed, helpless, when his brother-in-law kisses him goodbye: his rage and rebellion against his life (which consists of shooting at the professor and then stealing a bottle of morphine from Astrov’s bag with the aim of killing himself) proven pointless, dead-ended, he stuck in it like an insect in flypaper that has finally stopped wriggling.

The other members of the cast are Donna Belleville as the fatuous, fawning intellectual Maria Vasilevna, Vanya’s mother, who dotes on Serebryakov, and Peter Millard as Telegin (known as Waffles), who lives off the estate but whose feelings are hurt whenever he hears one of the locals refer to him as a moocher. Sue LePage has costumed Belleville to look mannish, which fits the style of the period for feminists like Maman (as she’s generally called), and the actress does a fine job of fleshing in the character. As Millard, one of the unsung treasures of the Shaw repertory company, plays Telegin, he talks blithely about his happy life but his eyes are scarred with pain. When Jerry Mayer took over this part in Vanya on 42nd Street, his hail-fellow-well-met air suppressed his resentment at the wife who abandoned him for another man and whose children by her lover Waffles continues to support now that the man is dead and has left her penniless. Millard, by contrast, can’t keep the schadenfreude out of his voice when he speaks of her, and when Yelena calls him by the wrong name, he gets really insulted (Sonya has to pacify him). When the professor calls the household together to present his scheme for selling the estate, we always focus on Vanya, and on Sonya, who is trying to bear up under the news that all hope of Astrov’s loving her is gone. Millard is so specific at articulating Telegin’s horror at hearing that his home is going to be sold from under his feet so clear that his troubles, too, are an unmistakable part of the mix.

The staging is eloquent and graceful. In her first scene Yelena swings on a rope, like Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants, and in the second act Maxwell has characters appearing from different corners, piercing the dark study with lamps in a vain effort to bring some cheer to the close, oppressive pre-rainstorm atmosphere. There are, however, a few exceptions: Astrov’s kissing Yelena at the end of their scene together is a trifle awkward (though Vanya’s appearance with a bouquet of autumn roses for her and his subsequent devastation at finding them together is wonderfully done), and though one can certainly play Vanya’s failed attempt to shoot the professor as farce, Maxwell just doesn’t get it to work here. And I wish she had chosen a better translation than this one, which the American playwright Annie Baker based on a literal transcription by Margarita Shalina. It’s flat and prosaic, and going along with the irritating current fad for stuffing translations of Chekhov and Ibsen and other modernists with anachronisms, it includes words like creep and yeesh and asshole and phrases like hang in there that are so jarring they can make you crazy. But LePage’s set, which becomes more detailed, more realist, in each of the four acts so that at the end you can feel how hemmed-in the characters are, is very smart, and Rebecca Picherack’s lighting is beautifully evocative, especially in act four. And for all the infelicities in the translation, you can’t complain about a production in which all eight of the actors contribute work of this high caliber. This is a show to be proud of.

Edward MacLiam and Aoife Duffin in The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe, London. (Photo:: Marc Brenner)

Happily, the restrictive “original practices” mandate that has held at Shakespeare’s Globe since it opened nearly twenty years ago has been relaxed for Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew. This production is a delightful comic spectacle that employs twin staircases in addition to a number of other visual aids (an abacus, a globe, an anatomy-class skeleton) to create a loony world that is inspired equally by silent film comedy and screwball comedy. (They meld in the wedding scene that, true to modern performance tradition, comes just before intermission.) The first act is an uproarious compendium of routines played at a rapid pace by a sturdy ensemble: Aaron Heffernan and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as Lucentio and Bianca; Colm Gormley and Raymond Keane as Hortensio and Gremio; Gary Liburn as Baptista; and, cross-dressing, Imogen Doel, Molly Logan and Helen Norton as the servants, Tranio, Biondello and Grumio. (I’d single out Hefferman and Doel.) The courtship by Petruchio (Edward MacLiam) of Baptista’s older daughter Katherine (Aiofe Duffin) provides the screwball comedy, which the two actors embody with considerable skill.

The question in your mind during intermission is how Byrne, who is obviously a talented and imaginative director, will handle the challenges of the second half, when the play as Shakespeare wrote it becomes a misogynistic nightmare. Edward Hall in the unforgettable Propeller Theatre Company version he created in 2006, where all both roles – all the roles – were played by men, turned the play bitter and upsetting as Petruchio’s abuse of Kate crushed her spirit. God knows Byrne has a strong concept. She’s set the play in Ireland around the time of the Easter 1916 rebellion, and the Irish folk tune, with its oblique protest lyric, that Kate sings at the beginning and end of act one draws an analogy between Ireland’s chafing against England’s ownership and women like Katherine resisting the patriarchy of marriage in this society. It sets up a darkening of the tone in the second act, and that’s what you get – but Byrne’s interpretation of the text here is more intriguing than coherent. She underlines Katherine’s suffering, staging it in a couple of metaphorical images: her wedding gown has been soiled and stripped away to a few rags clinging to the hoop underneath and the bridal bed is a board on a mound of coals. Petruchio “tames” her with a melancholy that suggests he doesn’t believe in his own scheme; when he exhorts the audience, “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak,” he sounds despairing. Later, when he demands a kiss in the street as they make their way back to her father’s house in Padua for her sister Bianca’s wedding, there’s clearly some sexual chemistry between them. At the wedding party, she gives the infamous speech about the virtue of a wife’s subservience to her husband, but without irony, and at the end she offers her hand to him to seal the notion of the peace she has been promoting (“I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace”). Petruchio takes it, and the production segues into a joyful dance that leads into the curtain call, but even if you see the signposts along the path Byrne has taken to get us to this point, you can’t buy it.

In the Propeller production, the ugliness of the second half reduced the comedy among the supporting characters to a sort of puppet show (though I’m not sure that’s what Hall intended), but something different happens in Byrne’s Taming. She seems to have been so sidelined by the problem of Petruchio and Katherine that she stopped paying attention to the rest of the play, and so, despite the actor Louis Dempsey’s best efforts, when Lucentio’s dad Vincentio appears and scuttles his son’s elaborate masquerade (he has been pretending to be a tutor to gain access to Bianca, while his servant Tranio has been playing the role of his own master), the staging of the farce lacks the precision and wit of the first-act comic chaos. But I admire Byrne for taking on this nigh-impossible play and pulling off as much of it as she has. It’s a noble effort from a director worth keeping an eye on.

Martin Happer and Diana Donnelly in A Woman of No Importance at the Shaw Festival.  (Photo: David Cooper)

Oscar Wilde’s dramatic output includes perhaps the funniest comedy of manners ever written for the stage (The Importance of Being Earnest), a strange poetic tragedy (Salome) and three hybrids: plays that begin as high comedies and turn into melodramas. They are Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance, the last of which is in the Shaw Festival repertory this year. Lady Windermere’s Fan still holds some allure, but A Woman of No Importance feels dated, and though the actors in Eda Holmes’ production are very good, the moment they leave the realm of high comedy they start getting the wrong kind of laughs. Lord Illingworth (Martin Happer, miscast but acting with his usual panache), who deserted the lover of his youth (Fiona Byrne) when she got pregnant and now crosses paths with the son she bore him (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), is such a callous misogynist that the audience boos him gleefully during curtain calls, an effect I can’t think Wilde was going for. The high-born ladies – Claire Jullien as Lady Stutfield, Diana Donnelly as Mrs. Allonby, Julia Course as the American visitor Hester Worsley, Mary Haney as Lady Caroline Pontefract and especially Fiona Reid, doing her best Maggie Smith imitation as Lady Hunstanton – are swathed in sumptuous gowns designed by Michael Gianfrancesco, and as long as they’re trading barbs the play is quite entertaining. Though they have little to do, Jim Mezon, Jeff Meadows, Thom Marriott and Ric Reid confer distinction on the proceedings in the early ensemble scenes. There’s a lot of talent on the stage, that’s for sure. Holmes has set the play in the early fifties, which is the last era when the sexual mores might have made any sense, but the updating of a quintessentially Victorian piece feels like a stretch.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies. 

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