Monday, February 21, 2011

The Unkindness of Strangers: The Wooster Group Does Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams
Vieux Carré is generally considered to be one of Tennessee Williams’ late works, since it was originally produced (and had a very short run) in 1977.  But the play has so much in common with the The Glass Menagerie (1944) that it could very well be a sequel to the more famous work.  Indeed, recent Williams scholarship has identified a working script dating to 1939, when the writer was living at the very street address where Vieux Carré takes place.

As in The Glass Menagerie, the central character is a writer—here referred to as “The Writer,” but most certainly he could be called “Tom.”  Imagine that Tom has fled his home in St. Louis and has found himself ensconced, at least temporarily, in a rundown boarding house on Rue Toulouse in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It is here, among the poor, physically ill, and mentally and emotionally precarious denizens of the household, that Tom finds both his sexual identity and his voice as a writer.  

Now, you don’t go to a theatrical production by The Wooster Group expecting to see a straightforward interpretation of a play.  The SoHo-based company, with its roots in experimental, avant-garde performance art, loves to push the envelope in an effort to make the audience think about the content while feeling, perhaps, a tad uncomfortable with its deconstructed and reconstructed works.

The current effort, officially titled The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, leaves the company’s reputation intact.  In this case, however, it is difficult to say which provides the most discomfort—the production itself or the physical space where the audience is seated in the Jerome Robbins’ Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street.  Surely someone unfamiliar with the human anatomy, or possibly with a large investment in a chiropractic treatment center, came up with the idea of steeply banked rows of thinly upholstered straight-backed pull-down benches, where the audience is crammed, two to a bench—and, in the case of Vieux Carré, at least—for two solid intermissionless hours yet.  Not good.

As for the Wooster Group, it has taken a relatively delicate piece of writing—which, unlike the leaden The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore from 1963 (currently on view at the Laura Pels Theatre), contains some of that lovely, ethereal language that Williams at his best was so very good at—and beats it to a pulp.

In order to connect with the play at all, we are forced to deal with annoying and distracting affections such as pointless video images and characters strutting around in leather thongs and protruding erect prosthetic phalluses that are about as sexually interesting as the character of the tubercular street artist who repeatedly attempts to seduce The Writer while coughing into an oversized bloody handkerchief.  What a turn-on!

It is only during those times when the actors are actually allowed to perform the play that we get any sense of Williams’ voice emerging from the noise, and the characters come into focus through generally good performances by the company. I especially liked Kate Valk in her dual roles of Jane Sparks (a down-on-her-luck character who bears a resemblance to Blanche DuBois) and Mrs. Wire, the brash and crazy landlady and would-be surrogate mother to The Writer, who, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, has had quite enough of mothers, thank you.

Taken as a whole, The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré is rather an ordeal to sit through.  I’m not sorry I did sit through it as I had not previously seen a production of the play,  but I would love to see a straightforward production, possibly in rep with The Glass Menagerie.  If you are similarly motivated, then by all means head on out to the Baryshikov Arts Center--but you might want to bring your own cushion or stand in the back.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

The Merchant of Venice: Compelling Production of A Challenging Play

Lily Rabe and Al Pacino

Anyone planning a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice needs to wrestle with how to portray Shylock, the money-lending Jew who demands payment of a “pound of flesh” when the title character in the play defaults on a loan.

Should the rampant anti-Semitism of the age—not to mention Jew-baiting theatrical precursors to Shakespeare—hold sway?  Or should we view Shylock through more modern and sympathetic eyes?  Both are legitimate interpretations, as the text itself offers enough leeway to allow for either perspective to hold sway.

Whatever choice is made, the thing I ask for as a playgoer is that the portrayal be an honest one.   To give what I consider to be an egregious example, I was deeply offended by the inane and condescending production of Christopher Marlowe’s vicious-tongued The Jew of Malta, directed by David Herskovits a few years back with a twitchy wink-and-nod-we’re-only-joking sensibility that ruined the experience of watching the play.  I get that the 16th century was not particularly kind to Jews.  Please don’t insult my intelligence, and don’t fear so much for my delicate sensibilities that you feel compelled to offer up such a cowardly production.

So I am both relieved and delighted to report that the current Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice is compelling, smart, and thoroughly honest.  Actor Al Pacino and director Daniel Sullivan offer us a Shylock who is both victimizer and victim, in acknowledgment of the truth that being on the receiving end of bigotry does not necessarily mean you are a kind and loving person deep down inside.

Pacino, in a measured performance that embodies the layers of meaning contained within every word he utters, gives us a Shylock who has spent his life being demeaned and scorned by his Christian countrymen and who has survived by his wit and intellect alone.  This Shylock has hardened himself to the cruelties of the world, and that has left precious little room for the softer emotions, including mercy (an important theme of the play) or the ability to show any tenderness toward his daughter Jessica.  This cold-heartedness, however self-protecting its origin, is the cause of his downfall and gives plausibility to his daughter’s abandonment of him and of her Jewish faith. 

Of course, The Merchant of Venice is not only about Shylock, whose story comes to its conclusion well before the end of the play. Playing off the tragedy of Shylock is the tale of Antonio, the merchant of the title, who finds himself before the court of law when he is unable to replay a loan of 3,000 ducats.  It is his pound of flesh that is to be given in forfeit, in accordance to the agreement he accepted when he took out the loan. 

Antonio is another complicated character.  We know he is a virulent anti-Semite, yet he willingly joins into a monetary arrangement with Shylock--and not out of any need of his own, but to provide funds to give to his friend Bassanio so that the latter may woo the lady Portia.  Why would Antonio do that?   Thanks to a strong and convincing performance by Byron Jennings, we see a psychological basis for his actions, for his general air of melancholy, and, later, for his willingness to sacrifice himself.  He is not just a plot device, but a complex human being who earns our sympathy despite his initial bigotry and arrogance.

The characters of Portia (Lily Rabe) and Bassanio (David Harbour) belong less to a Shakespearean tragedy than to one of his romances, but both actors serve their parts well.  Ms. Rabe, in particular, rolls that Elizabethan English off her tongue so well that it seems absolutely natural to her, and she gives full range to both the comic and the serious sides of her character. 

In truth, there is not a weak performance among the cast of 32, who work together as well as any ensemble I can recall seeing.  If I were compelled to single out a few more, Christopher Fitzgerald as Launcelot Gobbo, Heather Lind as Jessica, and Marsha Stephanie Blake at Portia’s lady-in-waiting give splendid performances in these smaller supporting roles.

I also want to hand it to director Daniel Sullivan.  Shakespeare is, after all, Shakespeare.  It takes a lot of work to make it accessible to a modern audience.   At the performance I attended, it was clear there were many there who were drawn by the star power of Mr. Pacino and who were unfamiliar with the play itself.  I heard gasps on more than one occasion as plot elements were revealed (e. g. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity).  It’s nice to know that the Bard still has the power to astonish. 

I also liked that, despite the seeming all’s-well ending, we can see there will be some troublesome days ahead,  especially for Jessica who has yet to work through her issues with both the father and the faith she has abandoned in a pique of rebellion.  It’s most intriguing that she is given the final moments onstage. 

Finally, a word about the scenic design by Mark Wendland, the costume design by Jess Goldstein, and the incidental music by Dan Moses Schreier.  That word would be “Brilliant.”

Bravo to all who were involved in giving us this splendid production!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Witch of Edmonton: Red Bull's Best Work Yet

Let me begin by acknowledging that 17th Century Jacobean drama is not everyone’s cup of tea.

But I am a huge admirer both of the form and of the gutsy job of performing it for today’s audiences that has been the hallmark of Red Bull Theater and its resident artistic director Jesse Berger.

One thing I have been waiting for, however, while attending Red Bull’s productions over the last several years, is for Mr. Berger to display more trust in the original creators of these (usually) tales of sexual obsession and vengeance among the high and the mighty of royal society.

The outpouring of stage blood and sometimes outlandish directorial choices (I’m pretty sure that John Webster did not interpolate a Rodgers and Hart song into The Duchess of Malfi when he wrote it in 1612) that have accompanied Red Bull productions to date have tended to make things rather more off-kilter than perhaps they have needed to be.

Still, what I have particularly appreciated about Red Bull is that it has continued to improve with each new production: better staging, better sets, better costumes, better casting, better performances, and, most significantly, a sharper eye toward revealing the sometimes hidden treasures that abide within these 400-year-old dramas.

Indeed, I get a sense that Mr. Berger has become a true student of Jacobean theater, worrying less about how to bring the play to the audience and more about how to bring the audience to the play.

And so I am quite pleased to say that the company’s current production of The Witch of Edmonton, at the Theater of St. Clement’s, is its best yet—hitting the mark in almost every area, fully embracing the play in a highly engaging production without resorting to the old bag of stage tricks aimed at appeasing an imagined antsy audience.

The Witch of Edmonton itself is a much different play than others from that age. While revenge is a theme, it is not the all-encompassing driver as it is in The Duchess of Malfi or Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. For one thing, The Witch of Edmonton is not about the lusty lives of dukes and duchesses; rather it is what you might call a domestic drama, dealing with the foibles and follies of everyday foks—the good citizens of Edmonton.

The play itself, dating from 1621, near the end of the Jacobean era, is attributed to three collaborating authors, William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford, who based the work on a fairly well-known contemporary pamphlet that reported the story of one Elizabeth Sawyer, said to be a witch.

The witch's story is one of three plot threads to the play, making it likely that the three writers worked individually on their parts before combining them for production on stage.  Elizabeth is a poor, elderly, and justifiably cantankerous woman who, for no apparent reason, is hounded and bullied by her neighbors.  She wishes so fervently to be avenged on her tormentors that the devil arrives (in the form of a talking shaggy dog named Tom), with a proposition to help her get even in exchange for her soul.

By being summoned into existence by Elizabeth, Tom is also free to pull his demonic tricks on others. One of these is Frank, who, without the devil’s help, has entangled himself into a case of bigamy, which ends rather badly for the second of his wives when Frank murders her.  Tom hovers over Frank when he commits the crime, but it is unclear whether the devil is acting as a goad or merely as an observer. 

The other plot thread is about a young, rather simple-minded fellow named Cuddy, who also befriends Tom—with a surprising result.

Devil or not, the characters in this play have a psychological complexity that leads us to ask serious questions about the extent to which humans are responsible for their own actions.

While The Witch of Edmonton has its share of bloodletting, these moments are handled with far more restraint than anything that Mr. Berger and Red Bull have shown previously, and the play itself ends on an unexpected and heartfelt note of forgiveness and redemption—hardly the usual stuff of Jacobean drama.

The quality of the performances is somewhat mixed, but the key players requite themselves well, with particularly strong work by Adam Green as Cuddy, Charlayne Woodward as Elizabeth, and, especially,  Derek Smith, who is mesmerizing as Tom the Dog, bringing both his dog-like and devilish qualities to full and disturbing life.

Also worthy of note are the costumes by Cait O’Connor, and the set by Anka Lupes, who has taken full advantage of the small workspace afforded at the theater.

By the way, tickets to The Witch of Edmonton start at $20, and are widely available at discounted prices through the usual sources (,, and to name three). You may have noticed that Red Bull is offering some of its lower priced tickets for seats that it calls “onstage.” This is actually misleading, as the audience is simply seated on two sides of the set. Don’t fear to purchase one of the “onstage” seats; you will not be dragged into the action, and, actually, you may have a better view than those sitting on the other side of the theater.


Speaking of discounts, while you are shaking your piggy bank and deciding whether you are willing to shell out the big bucks to see Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo or Ben Stiller and Edie Falco in The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway, here are a couple of less expensive alternatives.

Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical has announced a cute promotion now through March 26th, 2011. If your name is either DANNY or SYLVIA, you can get two tickets for the price of one. Just bring your proof of ID to the St. Luke’s Box Office, 308 West 46th Street, at least 30 minutes prior to any performance beginning this Saturday, February 5th. (This offer is not valid for the February 12th performance.)

In addition, Playwrights Horizons is offering discounted tickets to its next production, the world premiere of a play called Kin, written by Bathsheba Doran and directed by Obie Award winner Sam Gold.

Playwrights Horizons describes the play thusly: Anna’s an Ivy League poetry scholar. Sean’s an Irish personal trainer. They hardly seem destined for one another. But as their web of disparate family and friends crosses great distances — both psychologically and geographically — an unlikely new family is forged. Bathsheba Doran’s play sheds a sharp light on the changing face of kinship in the expansive landscape of the modern world.

Purchase tickets by March 21 with code KINGR and you get a discount: $40 (reg. $70) for the first 16 performances  (Feb. 25 – March 10) or $55 (reg. $70) for all remaining performances March 11 – April 3. You can online at Use code KINGR, or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily), or present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily). Do note that a limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.