Monday, July 24, 2017

George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman and Paula Vogel: Issues

Andrew Lawrie, Sara Topham and Jim Mezon in the Shaw Festival's production of Saint Joan. (Photo: David Cooper)

This article contains reviews of Saint Joan, The Little Foxes, and Indecent.

George Bernard Shaw lays out the argument of Saint Joan with unerring precision. Joan is a French peasant, a teenager, unwavering in her Catholic devotion yet possessed of a country girl’s common sense; when she hears the voices of saints in the church bells, urging her to lead an army to throw the English out of France, she accepts them without doubt or hesitation and her no-nonsense certainty that she is doing the right thing convinces one man after another, right up to the Dauphin, whom she dreams of helping to crown King Charles VII. But as soon as she wins the war for him she finds herself mired in political turmoil that she doesn’t understand and that will end inevitably with her being burned at the stake. She has run afoul not only of the English (obviously) but of the church, represented by the Archbishop of Rheims and the Inquisition, who find in her intimate relationship with God a threat to the Catholic hierarchy. Even the Dauphin, now the monarch, is put off by her arrogance, which earlier he, like the officers she kicked into battle, found inspiring and sensible. The more she insists on being true to the simple faith that got her there in the first place, the more she damns herself in the eyes of the church, which forms an unholy alliance with its secular arm (and the English) to execute her.

Other playwrights have taken on the story of Joan (notably Jean Anouilh in The Lark) and five or six movies have been made of it. Only one, the late silent The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer, is worth seeing, and it’s a masterpiece. (And arguably no one has ever given a greater performance on screen than Maria Falconetti in the title role.) What Shaw’s play, written three years after Joan was canonized and five years before Dreyer’s film, has in common with it is the uncanny balance of dense intelligence and glittering dramatic clarity. In the Shaw Festival’s production, the director, Tim Carroll, takes that clarity as his watchword and eliminates any ornamentation that might get in its way. Though Judith Bowden’s abstract set, a raked platform with a glowing rectangle hovering above it (and sometimes lowered onto it), is exquisite, and though Carroll uses it and Kevin LaMotte’s lighting to create a series of beautiful stage pictures, what he focuses on is not the esthetics of the piece but Shaw’s compelling argument. For his first large-scale show as artistic director (the play is being performed on the huge Festival stage) he’s brought out all the big guns. Benedict Campbell plays the Archbishop; Tom McCamus is the Earl of Warwick; Graeme Somerville is Peter Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais; Gray Powell is Dunois; Jim Mezon is the Inquisitor; Steven Sutcliffe is double-clast as Captain La Hire and the Executioner and Jeff Meadows as Canon d’Estivet and Bertrand de Poulengey. All of them are extremely fine, especially in their vocal performances: they bring masterful technique to bear on Shaw’s magnificent dialogue. Of the younger members of the company, Wade Bogert-O’Brien and Ben Sanders are standouts as, respectively, the Dauphin and Gilles de Rais (a.k.a. Bluebeard).

The production’s exploration of the text is compelling, almost inexorable, though it is, perhaps, more a cerebral experience than an emotional one. I think that’s because Sara Topham, as Joan, lacks the spark of passionate commitment that would explain how this adolescent farm girl gets all the men she encounters to back her mad scheme. Topham’s acting gets better in the second half, and she’s far from an embarrassment, but you need someone in the part with charisma, perhaps even genius. Geneviève Bujold played Joan on television in the sixties, and though my teenage recollection of her performance may be untrustworthy, I’m pretty sure she had it. The young Vanessa Redgrave, the young Amanda Plummer, the young Cherry Jones – that’s the caliber of actress the role calls for. (Plummer played Joan in The Lark at Stratford, Ontario, but she was already too old for it, and her performance was a disappointment.) It’s a tall order, but I don’t believe you can make Saint Joan work completely without filling it, even in a show as supremely intelligent as this one.

There’s one other problem – a small one, perhaps, but glaring because it shows a want of one of Joan’s own salient qualities: her common sense. Operating on one of the principles that motivates Carroll’s approach to the Shaw in his freshman season as artistic director – which I will discuss next week in my analysis of four other shows – he has included some cross-gender casting in the ensemble. But if you’re mounting a play in which one of the church’s charges against Joan is that it’s unseemly in a young woman to dress in soldier’s garb, you can’t cast other women as members of the army, let alone as clerics. If you can’t put the play first, before any political notions about egalitarianism, then at least in this small way you’re failing to do it justice.

Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in The Little Foxes at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lillian Hellman fancied herself a writer of social and political drama but all her plays were melodramas. The one that put her on the map, 1934’s The Children’s Hour, was the most distasteful – though in the process of sidestepping its lesbian theme for Hays Code-era Hollywood, Hellman and the filmmaker William Wyler turned it into an excellent romantic drama called These Three. (Wyler’s 1961 remake, called The Children’s Hour, was rather embarrassing, though the documentary The Celluloid Closet, about the history of homosexuality in American movies, gets considerable mileage out of it.) Hellman’s biggest hit, The Little Foxes, set in a small southern town at the turn of the century, came in 1939 – and judging from Daniel Sullivan’s recent, highly entertaining Broadway revival, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trading off in the roles of Regina Giddens and her sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard, it still has a lot of juice. That’s a surprise if your only exposure to it has been Wyler’s 1941 movie version, which is in technical terms (and famously) a model of how to bring a play to the screen but doesn’t run on much emotional energy. The main problem, oddly, seems to be Bette Davis’s repressed, unexciting portrayal of Regina, who takes on her two reprobate older brothers for control of the fortune they’ve arranged to make on a new cotton mill in partnership with a Chicago industrialist. The Hubbard clan are ruthless narcissists who gleefully stoop to manipulation of any kind, not excluding blackmail, to get what they want; they are, in the words of the Biblical quotation that furnished the play’s title, the greedy little foxes who spoil the grapes. Hellman thought she was penning an indictment of the American corporate mentality, but Ben and Oscar Hubbard are stock villains – as is Oscar’s cruel, unintelligent son Leo, whom the brothers want to marry off to Regina’s daughter Alexandra – while Alexandra Regina’s banker husband Horace, stricken with heart disease, Birdie (whom Oscar married for her money and her aristocratic status) and the sturdy black housekeeper Addie are the good, loving characters we’re poised to root for. (Hellman gives them a big scene together at the top of Act III to reinforce their alliance, just in case the audience somehow managed to miss the point.) But Regina, raging over the fact that her gender has traditionally closed her out of financial negotiations and fervent to move out of this claustrophobic town and live the high life in Chicago, is a vibrant villainess; you can’t take her – or anything in the play – seriously, but she sets the stage alight. And by all accounts Tallulah Bankhead, who created the role in 1939, did exactly that.

I saw Linney in the part and she gave some indication of what Bankhead’s approach might have been: she was funny and ironic and sometimes outrageous. Linney gave a strong performance as the Marquise de Merteuil in a 2008 revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the Roundabout Theatre, and I recognized in her Regina some of the qualities she brought to that role, notably her serene contemptuousness, a regal air of infinite patience that clearly conveys how restricted her tolerance truly is. But Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a much better play, and she knew better than to risk making it campy by being too showy; she played Merteuil as pathological, wounded in some mysterious way that makes her incapable of contentment or of permitting happiness in others. (It was a clever choice, because she could make the single deficiency in her performance, a lack of sensuality, work for her.) As Regina she goes for broke, and she’s very enjoyable to watch.

The sumptuous production, with set design by Scott Pask, lighting by Justin Townsend and glamorous fin-de-siècle gowns by the indispensable Jane Greenwood, is well acted by almost everyone, even Francesca Carpanini in the thankless role of Alexandra. Michael McKean, who has become a welcome stalwart in New York shows over the past decade, plays Ben with wary self-amusement, and Darren Goldstein counters him as Oscar, who is always struggling to catch up to his brainier older brother. Charles Turner and especially Caroline Stefanie Clay fill in the characters of the two domestics, Cal and Addie and add a few grace notes. David Alford warms up the small first-act role of Mr. Marshall, the Hubbards’ new northern partner; I was reminded of how much I’ve always enjoyed watching him as Bucky Dawes on the TV soap Nashville, though his character is generally in the background. The only actor who doesn’t seem quite genuine is Michael Benz as Leo. Richard Thomas makes Horace such a pulsating life-embracer that, though his marriage to Regina has long since become odious, we can understand what might have drawn him to her in the first place – and his debilitation feels tragic, as it always does in life when we watch someone with a powerful personality sucked in by illness. It’s a magnificent performance, and so is Cynthia Nixon’s as Birdie. (It was this role that won her a Supporting Actress Tony last month.) Recreating her Broadway performance in the Wyler movie, Patricia Collinge made the pathos in the character of Birdie poetic; Nixon goes farther and turns her into a Tennessee Williams figure, though one whose awareness that she’s thrown away her life in a marriage to a disdainful brute – whose lies she should have known better than to believe – makes her even more heartbreaking. I had a far better time at this Little Foxes than I might have guessed, and Thomas and Nixon add an element of depth to the show that makes it memorable.

Adina Verson and Max Gordon Moore in Indecent by Paula Vogel. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Paula Vogel’s Indecent has big ideas, but I’m not sure what it’s actually about. It begins as a history of Sholem Asch’s 1907 God of Vengeance, the first play to contain a lesbian love scene: originally performed in Asch’s native Warsaw, it was translated into English and produced in New York – where Asch had relocated – and the entire cast, the producer and one of the theatre owners were charged with obscenity. (They were found guilty but the conviction was repealed.) But then Indecent rambles onto two other themes: the assimilation of American Jews and the Holocaust, which are certainly connected to each other but neither has much to do with the depiction of love between two women on the stage. Around the time the play has made that ramble it seems to forget the lesbian subject matter; it’s intriguing that the émigré Polish-Jewish actresses originally cast as the two women in the love scene – an innocent girl from a supposedly respectable family whose father owns a brothel and one of his prostitutes – are lovers off the stage too, but the play drops their story entirely.

Vogel has made a lot of fuss over what she’s claimed is the unfair treatment of Indecent by the New York press and the fact that Oslo, written by a straight white guy, garnered the reviews that she was denied. But Oslo is a play, not just a mass of disparate plot ideas; I was never in doubt about what it was about. Considering that Indecent was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and that Rebecca Taichman, who “created” it (whatever that means) along with Vogel and staged it, won the directing prize, and considering that, unprecedentedly, a sudden surge of box-office interest in the play persuaded the producers to keep it open for an additional six weeks after posting the closing notice, I’d say she doesn’t have much to complain about.

That award for Taichman leaves me baffled. She comes up with some arresting images, but the acting is awful – everyone on stage puts quotation marks around everything they do and say, so (among other things) the sections we see from God of Vengeance look hopelessly, foolishly melodramatic. The play may be a melodrama; I assume it is. But if you want to make the point that what happens between the two female characters on the stage is poignant or startling, then it would make a hell of a lot more sense to mute the melodramatic style to point up the value you’re going for – just as, say, Richard Eyre did in his movie Stage Beauty when he wanted to use the introduction of actresses on the English stage as a metaphor for the move toward modern theatre. Taichman puts quotation marks around her quotation marks. I didn’t mind the Brechtian titles (projected onto the cyclorama) but the occasional interjection of the title “A blink in time” to tell us that time is advancing is both self-conscious and pointless. (This is hardly the first play to use the cinematic device of advancing time in the middle of a scene, so maybe its “creators” shouldn’t pat themselves on the back for inventing it.) The show moves along, more or less, but that’s mostly because David Dorfman has given the actors some ersatz Fiddler on the Roof-ish choreography to get them from scene to scene. Overall it’s pretty unimpressive stuff.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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