Monday, May 29, 2017

New Takes on Modernist Classics

Dani De Waal, Miles Anderson, and Mary VanArsdel in Heartbreak House. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This piece contains reviews of Hartford Stage's Heartbreak House, Irish Repertory Theatre's The Emperor Jones, National Theatre's Hedda Gabler, and John Golden Theatre's A Doll’s House, Part 2.

When Andrew Long strides onstage in Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage as captain of industry Boss Mangan, made up and bewigged to look like a parody of Donald Trump, the production utterly loses its moorings. I guess that the director, Darko Tresnjak, couldn’t resist – but he should have. George Bernard Shaw’s “fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” as the playwright billed it, written during the First World War but not performed until 1919, is a one-of-a-kind high comedy: Shaw’s take on Chekhov transforms him in the process, but the experiment has an equally transformative effect on Shaw. The dialogue sounds like Shaw, the sly challenges to accepted social and political attitudes smack of Shaw, but the air of fatalistic melancholy (inspired by the fact of the war) is distinctly Chekhovian, and the result is a play unlike anything else Shaw ever wrote. Transposing a replica of Trump out of Saturday Night Live isn’t meant to transport the play to the present day (the actors are still wearing Edwardian outfits) but to make it relevant to contemporary audiences, as if one of the undisputed masterpieces of the modern theatre didn’t already offer enough to engage them. And the decision to Trump Mangan makes nonsense out of the proceedings. Every time he makes a comment about politics, the audience laughs – not because it’s witty or the actor has mined its comic potential but because we make the connection to Trump, even though the connection isn’t real but merely a red arrow inked by Tresnjak on the surface of Shaw’s text. Everything the character says and does, everything about the way he looks and the way he sounds, takes us out of the play.

This Heartbreak House is exceptionally poorly performed but I suspect it’s less the fault of the actors than the consequence of Tresnjak’s juicing up the play in a frantic effort to make it into a wild, anarchic farce peopled with caricatures. Ironically his approach has the opposite effect to the one he must have been going for: he’s bent it so far out of shape that the scenes, which Shaw infused with an oddball buoyancy, are deadly, especially in act two. (The Hartford Stage production includes only one intermission, so the second part, made up of acts two and three, is one and a half times longer than act one – a misjudgment and in this case a punishment. Paradoxically, a second intermission might have made the evening feel shorter.) And since the actors don’t pay attention to Shaw’s rhythms or to the arcs of the scenes, you keep losing track of what the characters – ancient Captain Shotover, his bohemian daughter Hesione and his respectable émigré daughter Ariadne, Hesione’s protégé Ellie Dunn, a poor girl determined to marry rich (i.e., Boss Mangan) and the others – are talking about. Reduced to farce stereotypes, they feel utterly wrong, twisted out of the form Shaw cast them in. Dani De Waal’s Ellie comes across as tantrummy, Charlotte Parry’s Hesione as a barking vamp, Miles Anderson’s Shotover as a silly old dear, Tessa Auberjonois’ Ariadne as an overdressed nanny, Stephen Barker Turner’s Hector Hushabye (Hesione’s husband, who woos Ellie when she doesn’t realize he’s married to her friend) as dull and charmless, Grant Goodman’s Randall Utterword (Ariadne’s fawning brother-in-law) as a preening ham. The only member of the cast who seems to be in the right play is Keith Reddin as Ellie’s luckless but life-loving father Mazzini Dunn, a leftist intellectual with no business sense whom Mangan has ruined for his own purposes.

Captain Shotover’s house, in which the play takes place, is constructed to look like a ship, and Colin McGurk’s design, with its long staircases and elevated decks, is so magnificent that all Tresnjak has to do to show it off is scatter the actors around its various levels. McGurk and costume designer Ilona Somogyi and lighting designer Matthew Richards are the only heroes of this production. I’ve seen some fine renditions of this play (most recently one at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in 2011; most memorably a TV transcription of a Broadway revival from the mid-eighties with Rex Harrison as the Captain and Rosemary Harris as Hesione), so sitting through a crummy one didn’t leave much of a mark on me. But I would be sorry to think of all those Hartford Stage subscribers toddling home with the thought that the only reason anyone could have for reviving Heartbreak House is as an excuse to make Trump jokes.

Andy Murray and Obi Abili in The Emperor Jones. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

It’s a nifty coincidence that both of Eugene O’Neill’s early expressionist experiments showed up in New York in the same season. Ciarán O’Reilly’s staging of The Emperor Jones (1920) at the Irish Repertory Theatre, with choreography by Barry McNabb, isn’t as dazzling as the version of The Hairy Ape Richard Jones brought to the Park Avenue Armory from London’s Old Vic, but it has a great deal of visual invention and charm – if you can use the word “charm” to bear on a play as dark as this one. In The Emperor Jones, an African American named Brutus Jones who escaped from a chain gang and landed on an island in the West Indies has hoodwinked the native population into accepting him as their monarch. But by the time the play – like The Hairy Ape, a one-act – begins, the natives have grown fed up with Jones’ living high at their expense; a con artist by nature, he never expected he could manipulate them forever, so he escapes to the forest, where he’s hidden food and money for another escape. But, the victim of either the locals’ enchantment or his own confusion and paranoia as he tries to find his way through the forest at night, Jones gets hopelessly lost. The Emperor Jones is a station drama (again like The Hairy Ape) in which the title character’s journey takes him back in his memory (to the chain gang and the murder of a friend in a poker game that led to his sentence) and then back in his racial memory to the slave auction block and farther back to Africa. Inevitably he dies; just as the play is ambiguous about the cause of his regression, so it presents more than one possible cause for his death.

In the Irish Repertory production, an ensemble of five talented actor/dancers plays the natives and all the characters in Jones’ feverous fantasies – except for the ones enacted by puppets, wonderfully designed by Bob Flanagan (who also supplied the masks). O’Reilly and McNabb work in concert with Flanagan, set designer Charlie Corcoran, costume designers Antonia Ford-Roberts and WhItney Locher, composer-sound designers Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, and the wizardly lighting designer Brian Nason to create startling scenes that sit right on the cusp of expressionism and surrealism. In one scene the members of the ensemble, in headdresses, play trees, holding branches like fringed horizontal wings and manipulating thick, leathery wild pig puppets on leashes. Jeff, the man Jones killed in the card game, is a skeleton whose dice hangs at the end of a thin wire above them – just out of reach, like the fruit Tantalus can’t get at in the myth. The chain gang is made up of cut-outs, hinged at the joints, on pedestals, operated by the overseers; the chief overseer, tall and menacing, wears a mask that obliquely suggests a KKK rider. Some of the slaves are made of wood, while others are miniatures the auctioneer keeps in a case as if he were selling notions to the assembled crowd. (These figures made me think of the creepy flesh-and-blood miniatures in the 1936 Tod Browning horror picture The Devil-Doll.)

The play really gets going when Jones gets to the forest; the opening scene, between him and the Cockney trader Smithers (played here by Andy Murray), seems to go on way too long even in the 1933 movie, where Jones is played by the towering Paul Robeson. Here it’s further hampered by the casting of Obi Abili as Jones. His reading of the text is adequate but he lacks charisma, without which the character’s ascent in the world isn’t plausible. It’s unfair to compare Abili to Robeson (who had also played the role on stage), but when I was a grad student at Stanford in the early eighties I saw a twenty-year-old Andre Braugher as Jones, and he was mesmerizing. The play cries out for a larger-than-life actor.

Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler. (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Here’s another grad school reminiscence. An undergraduate in a directing class put together a collage of several of Masha’s scenes from The Sea Gull that began with the unfortunate actress playing the part scattering flowers around her on the stage floor and then twisting their heads off one by one. At the beginning of the second act of Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler (modern-set, like all his shows, and working from a Patrick Marber translation of the Ibsen original), recently mounted at the National Theatre and shown in the NT Live series, Hedda (Ruth Wilson) destroys all the flowers in the room and then staples some of them to the wall. I know van Hove is a gifted director, but in this instance I’m afraid I can’t see any difference between what he devised and what that overeager and misguided college student came up with for a class assignment. This Hedda is full of idiotic notions. When Judge Brack (Rafe Spall, in a ludicrous performance) blackmails Hedda near the end of the play, he spits blood out of a can onto her face, pushes her down on the ground and straddles her. Before she shoots herself she plays the piano with her ass. I haven’t seen every Hedda Gabler ever attempted, obviously, but I’m pretty sure this one is a, if not the, low point in the play’s production history.

In an interview during intermission, the talented Ruth Wilson explains that van Hove doesn’t believe in subtext, and what a revelatory comment that is. He didn’t need to worry about subtext in his Kings of War because Shakespeare’s writing predates the whole idea, and playing everything out in A View from the Bridge turned out to be a better idea than dealing with the thin layer underneath Arthur Miller’s play; in that case, what van Hove put on the stage of the Young Vic was more interesting than the original. But trying to stage one of the great modern realist plays without subtext is madness. (Heaven help us if van Hove ever decides to stage Chekhov.) Van Hove is crazily erratic as a director, though by now, having sat through Obsession, his adaptation of the Visconti melodrama Ossessione, with Jude Law and the first act of his Broadway revival of The Crucible (in which the girls are real witches – an idea that suggests van Hove didn’t understand the text, let alone the subtext) and this Hedda Gabler, I’ve seen more duds from him than successes. I think I might take a break from him for a while.

Laurie Metcalf and Chris Cooper in A Doll's House, Part 2. (Photo:Brigitte Lacombe)

As Torvald in A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s sequel to another Ibsen classic, Chris Cooper gives a riveting, complex performance that forces you to consider the character as far more than a petty, vain tyrant who treats – or, in this case, treated – his wife as a pretty plaything. Or, put another way, he and Hnath suggest that whatever his (and society’s) injustices toward Nora might have been, he had a heart to be broken, and her walking out on him broke it. Whenever Cooper’s on stage he anchors the play. But I confess that I’m not sure what else to make of it. It’s suspended somewhere between a piece of psychological realism/marriage therapy session and – if the reader will forgive the circularity of this discussion – an SNL sketch, and then it ends on a homiletic note. Laurie Metcalf plays Nora, returning to bargain with Torvald fifteen years after leaving him, in comic-absurdist style, at least most of the time, and Jayne Houdyshell gets her share of laughs as the housekeeper, Anne Marie. They’re both very funny, but the style didn’t work for me, and I found the tonal shifts jarring. (I can’t say what the fourth member of the cast, Condola Rashad as Nora and Torvald’s grown-up daughter Emmy, is trying for.) I was intrigued by the first Hnath play I saw, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About Walt Disney, which starred the amazing Larry Pine, and I loved The Christians (which I’ve only read), but this one, at least in Sam Gold’s production, baffles me.

A note: this isn’t the first attempt to write a sequel to A Doll’s House. Betty Comden and Adolph Green made a run at it in a 1985 musical called A Doll’s Life, which ends with a song called “Can You Hear Me Now?” and seems, at least from the cast album, to be entirely misbegotten. For comic takes on Ibsen’s pioneering marital drama, I prefer to Hnath’s the speech in John Guare’s Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1977) in which the famous film director Stony McBride, whose wife Diane has been hinting around at her dissatisfaction with their marriage by attending every revival of A Doll’s House she can find anywhere in the world, blocks out her passive-aggressive rebellion by presenting his own alternative version of the end of the play:
Nora never left. Ibsen’s entire point is Nora’s husband knew she was leaving and quick as a shooting star, he constructed a new living room that enclosed the outside of the front door. So when Nora let she found herself not in the outside world, but in another, a newer, a stranger room. And since there was no door in that room, she drew a window and quickly climbed out of it. But her brilliant, heroic husband built a new room off that window. And she beat down the walls of that new room and the walls crumbled and her hands bled and the dust cleared and she found herself in a newer room still damp from construction. And she crawled through the ceiling, gnawing, and her husband dropped a new room on top of that escape hatch. So, the wife invented fire and burned down all the rooms and her skin blistered but she smiled for she knew she would soon be free. And the smoke cleared and an enormous igloo domed the sky and she ripped out her heart and intestines and forged them into an ice pick and chopped her way out through the sky and she opened the ice door that would lead her into the nebula, the Milky Way, heaven, freedom, but no, she chopped back the door to heaven and was warmed by the glow of a cozy room, her Christmas card list, a lifetime subscription to a glossy magazine called Me, her children, her closet crammed with clothes, her possessions, her life sat waiting for her in a rocking chair. 
Guare’s Looney Tunes rereading of Ibsen makes sense to me, and the play in which it occurs is nutty but consistent. I wish I knew what Hnath is up to with his.

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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