Monday, August 8, 2022

New Work at the Goodspeed and Williamstown: Anne of Green Gables and we are continuous

Juliette Redden and D.C. Anderson and cast in Anne of Green Gables. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 children’s novel – the most popular work of literature ever to come out of Canada and the first in a series of nine books – the new musical Anne of Green Gables (at the Goodspeed Opera House) is the latest effort to make a classic story feel contemporary. The narrative, about a willful, self-dramatizing orphan girl named Anne Shirley who is adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a pair of aging unmarried siblings on Prince Edward Island, by accident (they’d requested a boy to help work their farm) and winds up winning over the entire town of Avonlea, is easily recognizable. But the playbill identifies the setting vaguely as “the start of a New Century,” and the playwright-lyricist, Matte O’Brien, has circled the proto-feminist elements in red and added a not-too-convincing queer subtext to Anne’s friendship with her classmate Diana Barry, to whom she provides intellectual encouragement and helps to pry out of the grasp of her stiflingly conventional mother. The ensemble, boys and girls from their peer group, has been costumed (by Tracy Christensen) to look like teenagers from the turn of the twenty-first century, and Matt Vinson’s music has a generic 1970s, Stephen Schwartzish folk-rock feel. (Three or four of the tunes are quite pretty.) The disjunction between the chorus numbers and the plot appears to have been inspired by the potent Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening, but there it had a point. The Frank Wedekind play Sater and Sheik adapted was so far ahead of its time when it was written in 1891 that it took much of the twentieth century for the culture to catch up to it, so when, on Broadway in 2006, the teenagers in Victorian outfits sang out their plaints of abuse and sexual confusion to rock rhythms, the strange period mix sounded exactly right. But you have to work at making Anne Shirley and the citizens of Avonlea, adolescent and adult alike, sound like they could have been at home two decades ago. 

Anyway, what happened to the notion of letting audiences sink into the world of another era? We’re so attached to the narcissistic idea that our perceptions and sensitivities are superior to and ought to cancel out all previous worldviews that our art and entertainment have become hopelessly blinkered. Once making the leap into the past was considered a valuable exercise of the imagination, and incidentally it allowed us to see for ourselves the way we linked up with those strangers. Writing about the American realist painter Thomas Eakins, the critic Calvin Tomkins suggested that the more precisely his canvases capture the interplay of character and setting within another time and place, the more deeply we peer into the universal truths underneath the perfectly realized surface. Watching Anne of Green Gables, I got mighty tired of O’Brien’s and Vinson’s pointer banging loudly against the storyline to illustrate how up-to-date it is. It had the opposite effect on me: I kept noticing how up-to-date the material isn’t.

This isn’t a very good show.  Too much of the acting – especially that of Juliette Redden as Anne and Aurelia Williams as the equally outspoken busybody Rachel Lynde – is ham-fisted, underscoring, ironically, the hopelessly old-fashioned quality of the humor. The director, Jenn Thompson, has distinguished herself by her work with the Mint Theatre, but her staging here is inelegant, perhaps because the virtues she’s demonstrated there (subtlety and psychological insight in particular) would be out of place here. The movement, choreographed by Jennifer Jancuska, is self-conscious and feels random. (The way she has the dancers use chairs and other sticks of furniture in some of the numbers is probably influenced by Matilda.) The costumes, normally a bonus in Goodspeed productions, are awkwardly designed, even the period ones – the much-spoken-of white dress with puffy sleeves that Anne ruins by falling in the lake is ugly and hangs badly on Redden’s frame. (The waterlogging it receives actually improves it.) And there’s an excess of plot, especially in the second act, some of which isn’t explained very clearly. Mrs. Lynde seems to be a nosy neighbor, but toward the end of the play, when she makes a generous gesture to help Marilla out of financial straits, she claims they’re family – news to the audience. When stern, insistent Marilla refuses to allow Anne to accept the scholarship she’s won to Queen University to study education, Matthew accuses her of wanting to hold the girl back to compensate for all the others she’s driven away, and we think, What others? Marilla has never had children of her own, and as far as we know Matthew is her only living kin. Did she take in other orphans the musical forgot to mention?

D.C. Anderson brings a lot of warmth to his portrayal of Matthew; it’s a shame that Vinson didn’t write better songs for him – less sentimental and bland – especially since they’re a relief after all the belting we get from Redden and, in her eleven o’clock number, “Marilla’s Song,” from Sharon Catherine Brown. Michelle Ventimiglia combines sweetness, tonal balance and an appealing modesty in her portrayal of Diana, and when the two best friends harmonize on “Different Kind of Girl,” she brings out Redden’s best side.

Tom Holcomb and Leland Fowler in we are continuous. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Apparently Harrison David Rivers’s we are continuous on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival is autobiographical, but despite the forced dramatic form, the vaguely mysterious title and the fact that the characters have labels (Mother, Son, Husband) rather than names, as in an expressionistic play from the 1920s, it just felt like melodrama to me. Where Storms Are Born, which WTF produced five years ago, showed that Rivers has talent, but this time he’s buried the evidence. This play is a three-hander about a young black man (played by Leland Fowler) who comes out to his conservative Christian parents, marries his lover (Tom Holcomb) and is diagnosed with HIV. The idea is very, very simple. Both the young man and his mother (Brenda Pressley) establish at the outset that they love each other dearly. But her husband’s fundamentalist intractability – his first response to his teenage son’s declaring he’s gay is to recommend a therapist; the second is to counsel him to keep the news to himself – gets in the way of her supporting her son, until the end, when, devastated by his illness, she finally silences her husband and hugs both her son and his husband. End of play. Then, of course, the audience rises to its feet, though their applause and cheers seem to be directed at the character of the mother more than at the playwright or the actors. The play is a kind of medal presented to “Mother” for proving the unconditional love for her son that Rivers is careful to draw our attention to in the opening scene.

I should have said “forced undramatic form,” since all three of the characters talk to the audience, not to each other (though occasionally the director, Tyler Thomas, has them face each other). Often one repeats information we just heard from someone else, and since the speakers’ versions of events don’t vary much, the effect is that we hear a lot of stuff twice. If Rivers cut the repetition as well as the redundancy, the play would probably run an hour rather than ninety minutes. Since the father never appears, the climactic scene where the son confronts his parents with his illness is terribly clumsy. However, by the end of the show I’d worked out what Rivers was up to with this bizarre choice. All three of the characters we do meet are very good people, played by likable performers; the present but absent father is the only one who behaves – with astonishing consistency – very badly, like a homophobic bigot. The play demonizes him in scene after scene; we’re even told at one point that on family road trips when the son was a boy, if he requested a pit stop his father ordered his wife to hand back a Mason jar to pee in. So the fact that no one has been cast as this paragon of intolerance eliminates the possibility that an actor might find a way to humanize him. It also removes the only source of audience discomfort in the play. we are continuous is a little gift for people who don’t want to be triggered. It’s a new kind of feel-good play.

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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