Monday, August 19, 2019

Rarities at Stratford and the Shaw Festival: Nathan the Wise, Sex, and Rope

Diane Flacks (centre) with members of the company in Nathan the Wise. (Photo: David Hou)

Nathan the Wise by the German Enlightenment playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (it was written in 1779) is so seldom performed that I’d never heard of it until Canada’s Stratford Festival elected to produce it this summer. It’s a fable, set in ancient Jerusalem, with more narrative complications than a Shakespearean romance. The title character (played by Diane Flacks) is a wealthy Jew who has used his fortune to maintain friendly relations with the powerful Muslim and Catholic forces in the city, represented respectively by the young Sultan, Saladin (Danny Ghantous), and the old Patriarch (Harry Nelken). When Nathan returns from a business trip, Daya (Sarah Orenstein), the Christian woman who manages his household and takes care of his daughter Rachel (Oksana Sirju), tells him that Rachel was rescued from a fire by an itinerant Knight Templar (Jakob Ehman) with whom she has fallen in love. The Knight Templar, a soldier in the service of the Catholic Church, has also won the affection of the Sultan, who slaughtered his fellows – prisoners captured in the holy war between the Christians and the Muslims – but spared his life because he looks so much like Saladin’s long-lost brother. The story is a series of revelations of the true identities of the characters, not just the Knight Templar but also Rachel, and of Nathan’s own past. And of course, it’s a plea for tolerance in which two of the three voices of racial hatred – Saladin and the Knight Templar – prove to be capable of crossing the boundaries that separate Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Patriarch, who at one point advocates burning Nathan at the stake, is the third, and he doesn’t alter his point of view.

It’s obvious why this obscure play – its varied production history is rendered in an excellent program note by Holger Syme – interested Stratford in 2019. (What is less clear is why the festival would choose to put it in repertory with Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind, which explores the same themes in the same space, the Studio Theatre, with a lot of the same actors. If you see them, as I did, back to back you may feel you’re having a déjà vu experience.) And never having read or seen Nathan the Wise before I can’t comment on whether the faults in the text are down to Lessing or to the translation by the British dramatist Edward Kemp, originally performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre a decade and a half ago, or maybe both. The diction is so stilted that the actors have their hands full just getting out the lines without tripping over them; it’s fascinating to watch Orenstein, one of the most experienced members of the ensemble and an actor I have admired in other shows, doing her damnedest to make her dialogue sound more or less natural. The conversations between characters are compulsively overwritten, as if for very small children who have to have every idea repeated over and over so they’ll follow the train of the story. The minds of adult viewers or precocious youngsters are apt to start wandering early on. On the other hand, the eleventh-hour plot reveals are piled on so fast that you have to sort them out in your head afterwards.

And I’m not convinced that the director, Birgit Schreyer Duarte, knows what she’s doing. The production begins with a pre-show in which the entire cast in various states of undress chant prayers of different religions as they face the audience; you get the point – it’s the one the play will make, painstakingly and repeatedly, for the next two hours and forty-five minutes – but the sequence, which looks like a warm-up for an acting class, doesn’t inspire confidence in what is to follow. The style and tone of the second act, which pick up on the play’s farce elements, are completely different from those of the first act, which is more serious, and the choice feels arbitrary; there’s a fairy-tale happy ending but Duarte has staged the last image to suggest a lack of resolution. I’ve seen fine productions of Shakespeare’s romances, especially Measure for Measure, that are in clear tension with the happy endings, but there the tension proceeded organically from what we’d been watching; here it simply seems tacked on to make a statement. (Duarte’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink director’s program note also professes connections that she’s grafted onto the play.) And her work with the actors is notably poor. No one, including Miranda Calderon as Saladin’s sister, Shelly Antony as Nathan’s dervish, who leaves his employ to work in the Sultan’s treasury, and Ron Kennell as a sympathetic lay brother, is believable (Orenstein comes closest), and most of them are so uneasy with the text that they give the impression of talking down to it – playacting.

What are we supposed to make of the casting of Diane Flacks in the male title role? Cross-gender casting is now widespread, so we’re all supposed to get used to it, whether we like it or not; it’s being imposed on us in order, it seems, to turn us into better human beings who walk away from the play realizing that there should be equity between the sexes, though it’s hard to imagine that most people who attend the Stratford Festival would need to be told. Theatregoers are being forced to march in the esthetic equivalent of a Soviet victory parade. It’s aggravating, like being preached at. Of course I get the idea of leveling the playing field so that there are as many acting opportunities for women as for men, but if the principle is sound the methodology backfires because everyone in the audience can see that it’s a concession and a stunt. Flacks may be a good actor, but all her effort in this play has gone into not coming across as a woman, and the results are weird: she seems neutered. Not long ago women were only cast in male roles, usually in community or college theatre, as a compromise when there weren’t enough men in the acting pool and companies had to find something for the abundance of women to do. Audiences accepted it because they knew they weren’t seeing professionals; that is, they simply overlooked it. Now we’re being asked to overlook it in professional productions because the cultural climate demands it. A handful of master actors of both sexes can pull off classical roles of the opposite sex, just as Sarah Bernhardt reportedly did with Hamlet, but they’re few and far between; but I wouldn’t want to see an actress I love, like Claire Foy or Rooney Mara, play Stanley Kowalski, any more than I’d want to see Ethan Hawke or Rory Kinnear as Blanche DuBois. There’s got to be some room for common sense in these political decisions.

Diana Donnelly and André Sills in Mae West's play Sex at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Sex ran for a year on Broadway in 1926 and 1927 before the New York Police Department finally closed it down and its author, producer, director and star, Mae West, sat in jail for eight days for “corrupting the morals of youth.” This summer’s Shaw Festival production, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis, is the first one in almost a century, and I wouldn’t have missed it because nobody’s likely to revive it again. The protagonist is Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly), a Montreal prostitute who leaves town for the West Indies after her pimp, Rocky (Kristopher Bowman), almost poisons Clara (Fiona Byrne), the wayward society matron he drugs in order to steal her jewels and, when Margy manages to revive her, she frames Margy in a desperate effort to avoid bad publicity. In Trinidad, a wealthy young American named Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course) falls for her and persuades her to come home to Connecticut with him to become his wife. When she arrives she discovers that Clara is his mother. The message is clear enough: only class, money and social prejudice separate a streetwalker from a respectable woman when it comes to sexual desire. The whore with a heart of gold had been around for about a century by the time West wrote Sex, and there are hundreds of other melodramas that plead for the humanity of fallen women. What makes Sex different from those is that it doesn’t treat desire as either a vice or a mistake: when Margy takes Jimmy to bed, we’re not supposed to shake our heads. Presumably that’s what pissed off the law in 1927 – that and whatever Mae West added, physically and vocally, to her performance as Margy.

But it’s not a good play. The writing is awkward (though the period slang is great fun) and the plot machinations are clunky. The tragic secondary prostitute, Margy’s friend Agnes (Jonathan Tan), suddenly turns up in Trinidad after her pimp-lover Curley (Course again) has succumbed to an overdose of morphine so that she can have one more scene before she drowns herself. And though Rocky runs away in act one to avoid getting arrested for nearly killing Clara, in act four it turns out that, though he’s still running, he’s been blackmailing her ever since.

Hinton-Davis does quite a bit to dress it up, though. He adds a couple of Brechtian musical interludes and he dials up the mood of demi-monde menace and sexual violence in the first act, and he does his best to keep it in the air throughout the play despite the fact that the story line goes soft after we get out of wide-open Montreal. The cross-gender casting doesn’t work here either, but you can see what he’s after – a kind of polymorphous-perverseness – and I think it might work if Tan were more convincing as Agnes and if Hinton-Davis hadn’t extended it to the role of Jimmy, the play’s only innocent. The problem isn’t Course, who’s a talented actor, but she’s more effective in the small part of Curley. André Sills is affable as the naval lieutenant who’s one of Margy’s regulars when he’s in port, but he stumbles over his British accent. Byrne and Bowman are good, as are Ric Reid as Stanton Sr., Katherine Gautier as a Québecois whore known as Red and Ben Sanders as a sinister john named Jones, whose appearance in Margy’s rooms makes you fearful for her until she manages to get rid of him. And Diana Donnelly gives a terrific tough-sexy-dame performance as Margy. For me, she brought back happy memories of pre-Hays Code Hollywood women like Jean Harlow in Red Dust and Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses.

Eo Sharp’s costumes are very evocative, especially the striped number Donnelly sports under a wide-brimmed hat in the Trinidad scenes, though the notion of giving her and Byrne the same outfit in the last act is a case of gilding the lily. I was less taken with Sharp’s set designs. In the first and third acts the stage of the Studio Theatre is weighed down with suitcases, I guess to underscore the idea that women like Margy are doomed to keep moving on, but it’s not a very resonant idea and it makes for cumbersome scene shifts. And I couldn’t figure out why there are metal measuring instruments at the four corners of the playing area in the fourth act. (They look like modified stadiometers that you might once have found in a tailor shop.) The audience shouldn’t have to guess at the meaning of the visual elements.

 Kelly Wong and Travis Seetoo in Rope at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, also at the Shaw, is a 1929 play suggested by the sensational Leopold-Loeb murder case from five years earlier: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, wealthy University of Chicago students, kidnaped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy, a cousin of Loeb’s, to prove to themselves that, as Nietzschean übermenschen, they could – and had the right to – execute the perfect crime. Hamilton transplanted the story to London and made the young killers, Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo, Oxford undergrads living together in Mayfair for the summer. He also added a third major character, a cynical poet with a limp (sometimes portrayed as a war injury) named Rupert Cadell who has known Brandon since he was a child and who introduced the boys to Nietzsche. In the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock movie adaptation, which has acquired an undeserved reputation in recent years partly because of Hitchcock’s attempt to make it look like it was shot in one uninterrupted take, Jimmy Stewart plays Cadell, who has been rewritten as a professor who taught the killers, and John Dall and Farley Granger are the young men. Rope isn’t the play Hamilton is best known for (that would be Angel Street), and aside from the film it lay pretty much dormant for years until the Almeida Theatre revived it a decade ago.

The play is an effective thriller with an unconventional structure: only we know from the outset that Brandon and Granillo have killed their classmate, Ronald Kentley, and stuffed him in a chest in their living room. Their grisly coup de théâtre is to serve dinner on top of the chest to a handful of guests, a sort of end-of-summer celebration before they make their way back to Oxford for the fall term. The invitees are Kentley’s father and aunt, two friends their own age, and Cadell, who begins to suspect what’s happened midway through the action. And the psychological subtext is intriguing, not only because Brandon is a sociopath who has Granillo under his control, but also because Hamilton subtly but unmistakably implies that they are lovers, just as some other treatments of the Leopold-Loeb story (especially the 1992 movie Swoon) have portrayed them.

The other unusual element is that the protagonist isn’t either of the young men but Cadell, who appears to share Brandon’s intellectual snobbery and misanthropic attitude to most of humanity. He’s also something of a misogynist: he makes rather cruel fun of the two women at the party, Mrs. Debenham and Leila Arden. (When he wrote the screenplay, Arthur Laurents decided that Rupert and Brandon had been sexually involved, though he says in his memoir that no one expressly told Stewart. It’s many years since I’ve seen the Hitchcock version, but I remember thinking that Stewart tried to hint at Rupert’s homosexuality but, badly miscast, was uncomfortable playing it. The original plan was to cast Cary Grant, whose sexuality was a well-kept Hollywood secret, but it didn’t pan out. But insiders would have known that Dall was gay and that Granger was bisexual and living with Laurents at the time.) From the beginning of the play Brandon claims to Granillo that he’s sure Rupert would not only understand their philosophical stance on committing murder but also applaud their courage; he even thought of including Rupert in the scheme but decided that he lacked the nerve to carry through with it. The third act focuses on Cadell’s moral revulsion when he realizes what the boys have done, and though Hamilton doesn’t write it as a character change, his response – which is to get Brandon to open the chest and then turn them into the cops – makes it clear that Brandon, who has no moral center, has deluded himself all along about Cadell, whose intellectual flirtation with Nietzsche is kept in check by empathy.

I said earlier that I suspect the director of Nathan the Wise didn’t know what she was doing; I’m absolutely sure that’s true of Jani Lauzon, who staged Rope at the Shaw. The production has no shape. For the first ten minutes of the play the stage is in almost complete darkness while Granillo, who is prone to hysteria, deals with the psychological results of what they’ve just done and Brandon, who feels triumphant, attempts to calm him down. The text calls for that darkness, but if you’re directing the play you’d better know exactly how to work with it, both in the staging and in the evocation of the mood of horror and suspense, or it will just feel like an accident – and that’s how it comes across here (even though the script explains it). The language is in the style of an English drawing-room play, but Lauzon has made no choices about how it should be played, so the audience sometimes laughs at it and the effect is that the production is using it to score points against the characters – though I’m sure that wasn’t her intention. I can’t think offhand of another play except for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which so much of the action revolves around the mixing, serving and imbibing of alcohol, but Lauzon doesn’t treat it as a motif and doesn’t work these moments into any kind of rhythm. You can deduce that the young men are a couple but Lauzon doesn’t bother to address it, even when they’re alone together, except for one moment near the end, when Rupert is interrogating them and Kelly Wong, as Brandon, puts his arm around the shoulder of Travis Seetoo’sGranillo. Wouldn’t Granillo, who is on the cusp of a meltdown, respond to his lover’s touch in some way, out of a need for physical comfort? Aside from the obvious – that Brandon is the controller, Granillo the controlled – I didn’t find out a single thing about their relationship. This is beyond missed opportunity; there’s a whole play in here that Lauzon hasn’t uncovered. And one of her staging choices is incomprehensible: in the revelation scene, when Granillo is coming apart, she shoves him in an upstage right corner of the set so that we can barely see him.

Neither Wong or Seetoo is much good, though Wong gets better after intermission, when his character starts to lose control over the circumstances and the actor stops reading every line as smug and snide. The charismatic Michael Therriault, who plays Cadell, gives an entertaining performance, but Lauzon hasn’t shaped the final scene to showcase the shift from the man Brandon assumes him to be to the morally balanced one he truly is. The supporting cast is uniformly good: Alexis Gordon as the likable but empty-headed flapper Leila; Kyle Golemba as the equally unconscious undergraduate Kenneth; Patty Jamieson as the aunt, who doesn’t listen very well (as Jamieson plays her, it’s because she’s almost pathologically socially awkward); Élodie Gillett as Sabot, the boys’ French housekeeper (Gillett makes it clear that Sabot not only dislikes Brandon but is terrified of him), and especially Peter Millard, one of the Shaw’s most trustworthy actors, as Sir Johnstone Kentley. Just before he leaves the flat, he receives a phone call from his wife, who is worried because their son hasn’t come home; Kentley pooh-poohs her concern but Millard lets his anxiety slip through his English reserve. This touching moment is the best thing in the show.

The set by Joanna Yu has transparent walls so we can see the characters, in semi-silhouette, move through the other rooms of the flat. Presumably this choice means something but I couldn’t work out what, and it looks clumsy. This seems to be another example of a set in search of a coherent concept.

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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