Archive for April, 2012

Cooper’s London

April 23, 2012


Old Vic:
Eve Is the Best Duchess Ever

There are two reasons not to miss the production of John Webster’s Jacobean gore-fest, The Duchess of Malfi. One is the astonishingly sensitive, moving and complex portrayal of the Duchess by Eve Best. She conveys a character whose charm, sensuality, and capacity for loving is so real that you ache for her as you watch her steam-rollered by circumstances and her profoundly evil brothers. After the history of the twentieth century – or even the story of the last few weeks in Syria – this nastiness is far more believable and real than it must have seemed to people in the previous three hundred years – and that is the second reason for seeing this production of a brilliant, poetic and unfortunately prescient drama.

The character of the Duchess of Malfi is the pivot of the story. The crux of the tale, though, revolves around Bosola. He’s just good enough to have some conscience but he’s self-serving; so he colludes with the corrupt tyrants who run things, thus both damning himself spiritually and becoming the agent of their evil purposes. Jamie Lloyd’s production is all the stronger for not dressing everyone up in Nazi or Fascist uniforms, and for making you work out the parallels for yourself. But he does make explicit the bloodiness of the period and its relation to the 21st century. 

I had a couple of quibbles, but the momentary blip of this or that line being a bit off-target could also be the vagaries of live performance. Essentially this is a beautifully worked ensemble piece in which all the actors certainly know what they are doing and whom they are supposed to be. Mark Bonar’s Bosola is a Common Man who never questions the corrupt prevailing views about class and power until it is way too late–like the people who were “just following orders” in all those recent genocidal regimes of recent decades.  Tom Bateman is a slightly Toy Boy object for the Duchess’s affections, but he also has a winning innocenceand great warmth in their love scenes; and he is very appealing towards the end when he simply cannot accept how evil his brother-in-law the Cardinal is, and still hopes for a reconciliation. They choose not to go public with their love, their marriage and their children until they are discovered, but they are also in a kind of denial about the decadence of the society surrounding them.   

The dichotomy between those who have a more normal and moral view of the world and who are seen, at moments of contrast, to even enjoy life – and those who are killers–is starkly presented in the second half of the play when the Duchess becomes almost an icon of probity. Eve Best conveys all the facets of the Duchess’ personality and of her continuously disintegrating situation in a luminous performance. Her sense of pleasure in her new-found love, her pleasure in life and in her children, and her goodness are perfectly in balance against the roiling darkness and evil that surround and eventually overwhelm her. The dignity, strength and refusal of the Duchess to crumble, in the face of the betrayals, torture and humiliations she suffers are unforgettable and grippingly powerful as the play darkens and as her brothers (Harry Lloyd as Ferdinand and Finbar Lynch as the Cardinal, both excellent) become obsessively more mad and vengeful.  Attractively designed and costumed, the evening is a strong  validation of the belief that this play is a masterpiece. 

Eve Best adds another strong interpretation to a gallery of heroines that now includes her Hedda Gabler, Lavinia Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra, the domineering and vulnerable Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten, and a brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.  Perhaps best known for her role as Eleanor O’Hara MD in Nurse Jackie on television, she proves once again that she is a great stage actress whose live appearances are to be treasured and, if at all possible, are not to be missed. 

The Duchess of Malfi plays at the Old Vic, London, until 9 June 2012.

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Apollo’s Girl

April 19, 2012

Il Sogno di Scipione

Gotham Chamber Opera
(At Gerald W. Lynch Theater, April 11-21)

Mozart has always been the classical poster boy for youth culture, and never more so than now that we have had the good luck to hear Il Sogno di Scipione once again. Written when he was 15, the prodigious Mozart already had six operas under his belt when he composed Il Sogno for one of his patrons, who died before it could be performed. As was often the custom it was quickly repurposed (and rededicated) to another, but only three of its sections were heard in that long-ago performance. Il Sogno languished until 1979 (God only knows why), and remained unstaged in America until the Gotham Chamber Opera first presented itself and the opera’s American premiere in 2001.

So there you have it: a prodigy’s tribute to his patronsthe perfect choice for Gotham’s tenth-anniversary revival, a Patron’s Gala. And if the patrons had a lucky evening as a reward for their support, they and the company mutually deserved it, in spades. Rarely do companies, directors or conductors have the chance to revisit a landmark production, much less one in which the decade has enabled them to attract modern patrons to support their work. And it is both inventive and varied: I’ve seen Il Gato con Botas (directed by Moises Kaufman), and, most notably, Nico Muhly‘s Dark Sisters (last season’s smash, directed by Rebecca Taichman).

In Il Sogno, the fiendish difficulty of Mozart’s youthful arias and recitatives is simply the outpouring of his take-no-prisoners genius and vigor. He would calm down later in life as he adapted the less-is-more approach to the ravishing melodies that still reduce us to tears, but not yet in 1771/2 . Questions must be asked: How, one wonders, could a 15-year-old pull it off? He could, and did, and the singers are right there with him every step of the way. Where on earth can directors and conductors find the three sopranos and three tenors who sing most of the arias and recitatives, most of them in non-stop roulades at the outer edges of their register? They must not only trill their way through the demanding score, constantly upping the musical ante as the opera moves from peak to peak but, in Christopher Alden’s production, also remain in equally constant motion.

Fortunately, Gotham has figured it out: Scipione (Michele Angelini) looks and acts the part of a young libertine who must choose between Fortuna (Susannah Biller) and Constancy (Marie-Ève Munger). All three spend much of their time in partial undress (this is, after all, an update), but triumph over the demands of score and staging, repeatedly drawing lusty and hard-earned applause for their skill. In the end, Scipione does the right thing; he chooses Constancy, suits up, and walks through a wall to his future. In an epilogue, Licenza (sung by the magnetic and luminous Rachel Willis Sorenson), assures us he has made an excellent choice and, true to 18th-century convention, praises Mozart’s patron. If you haven’t already made plans to see the remaining performances, you can order your tickets now, and learn more about the opera, the production, and the company itself. gotham

Since Gotham has achieved success with this revival, perhaps they would consider bringing back last November’s world premiere, Muhly’s Dark Sisters? I, for one, would welcome a chance to see it again.

Apollo’s Girl

April 9, 2012



Theatre for a New Audience:
The Taming of the Shrew
(Duke Theatre, through April 21)

When informed that TFANA’s new Shrew would be post-Feminist, I thought “What would Betty Friedan do?”. But not to worry: In addition to having mounted a marvelous interpretation of Shakespeare’s second comedy, the company has thoughtfully included a Perspectives section in the program that bolsters both sides of the script’s arguments; it contains a breezy pro-finale encomium from Meryl Streep, and a substantial quote by Germaine Greer, that set any pre-attendance agita to rest:

…[Petruchio] wants [Kate’s] spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping…Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both…

Well, readers, it doesn’t get any better than that. Except for the production itself. The energy of the cast rises like caffeine mist from the stage and simply never lets up. But there are always shimmering peaks and psychological valleys in succession that keep you laughing and crying and, occasionally, a tad off-balance—yet always interested. You know it’s superlative when the prospect of its happy ending seems occasionally less than certain.

So what have we, then? An updated (but never bent out of shape) take on a beloved classic, set in a 19th-century frontier town of wooden slats tacked together (Louise Nevelson meets Little House on the Prairie). The frame of drunken tinker-cum-lord is set up, and the troupe of strolling players, in Elizabethan motley, begins the story.

Here’s the best part: the play, the players, and the pitch-perfect direction of Arin Arbus, TFANA’s associate artistic director. I am sorry to have missed her earlier work, but Shrew is enough to make it clear that her love of language is equaled by her love of its physical expression in both face and body. The Duke’s compact stage stage is alive with the possibilities afforded by her talents for guiding a cast that has not one weak link. Yes, everyone has their moment, for Shrew is not only etched in Shakespeare’s nimble wit, but has probably the best war-of-the-sexes dialogue ever written. That said, as good as the actors are, and as perfectly cast, the play finally rests on the talents of its Petruchio and its Kate—Andy Groteleuschen (recently of Cymbeline) and Maggie Siff (the Jewish department store heiress who gobsmacked Mad Men’s Don Draper). Here, they are evenly matched, and unstoppable. The great set pieces of their duels crackle with gusto (and you can hear every syllable) as Petruchio tames his bride by denying her sleep, food, and fashion. See them run!

What conclusions can we draw from this bulletproof masterpiece, still galvanizing actors and audiences for over 300 years since it first played in London? That it has stood the test of time, that its humor still makes us laugh, and that it inspired Cole Porter to write his best musical; the songs were his own, but he helped himself shamelessly to Shakespeare’s text (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!).

We’ve already quoted Germaine Greer; now it’s time for Meryl Streep: “…So why is selflessness…wrong?…Service is the only thing that’s important about love…Duty. We can’t stand that idea, either…But duty might be a suit of armor you put on to fight for your love.” And there’s more: we know that Betty Friedan mellowed in later life. What would she have done? She would have loved this production. I certainly did!

Cogito: John Branch

April 7, 2012

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore:
Too Much Cheek by
Cheek by Jowl

Fate and the gods of theatrical production brought a Jacobean tragedy to BAM recently, and while grumpy traditionalism isn’t a position I want to adopt, a little more tradition would’ve been welcome in its interpretation; the brisk, modernized, and too-busy staging eventually caused the play to lose its balance.

Much can be said about John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, beginning with the likelihood that it’s not strictly Jacobean. The term applies to the reign of James I of England (1603–25), who succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne; he directed the Bible translation still known by his name, but his rule also shaped the creation of the darkest and bloodiest set of plays we have. (Remember the child with a taste for torture in Shakespeare in Love? He grew up to be John Webster, a leading dramatist of the style). Ford’s play, however, probably dates from the 1630s and the reign of the next king, Charles I (1625–49).

But the term “Caroline” seems little used nowadays by anyone but scholars. Besides, in spirit the play is of a piece with everything we label Jacobean tragedy. Many of the greatest of these plays, which includes ’Tis Pity, have been presented in New York in the last decade or so: The White Devil, performed by Sydney Theatre Company at BAM in 2001; The Revenger’s Tragedy, performed by Red Bull in 2005; and The Duchess of Malfi, performed by Red Bull in 2010. (Incidentally, New York’s Theater for a New Audience performed a less-familiar John Ford play, The Broken Heart, earlier this year; regrettably, I learned about it after the fact.) A key word for these plays is “horrific.” They’re a drama of many D-words—dissolution, debauchery, depravity, decadence; they feature often-Byzantine plots, revenge with a vengeance, corruption high and low, severed limbs and knifed-out organs, countless methods of murder, and at least one case of lycanthropy (i.e., a wolf man). I still relish a sensational death in The White Devil at BAM in which a character was killed by a poisoned fencing helmet: when he removed it, it appeared to be dissolving his head into blood.

The theatrical sensationalism of the Jacobean tragedies accounts for part of their current appeal; it plays to a taste for spectacle and violence just as Hollywood often does. But their moral ambiguity is what has really found them a second home in our time. The fine Australian critic Alison Croggon wrote in a review of one of them that “their dark machineries reflected a godless world in which human passion flamed out and extinguished itself in a materialistic, cynical and bloodily hierarchical society.” Even the verse of these tragedies—which is sometimes exhausted in comparison with Marlowe and Shakespeare—is winning; T. S. Eliot prized it.

Ford’s ’Tis Pity gives passion a special twist. His young couple, in a deliberate echo of Romeo and Juliet, indulge in a love that’s just as doomed as Shakespeare’s, and again it’s for reasons of family—they’re brother and sister. Like the love of Romeo and Juliet, the feelings of Giovanni and Annabella for each other in this play are genuine and deep, not purely a matter of physical attraction, and it’s expressed lyrically in the text.

Readers will be saved from any further historical or critical ventures on my part by the fact that they wouldn’t have much bearing on the staging of ’Tis Pity that the British company Cheek by Jowl brought to BAM for two weeks in March. The production was slimmed down, jazzed up, and sped along enough that I still want to know what it’s like to see Ford’s play.

The performers, including Jack Gordon as Giovanni and Lydia Wilson as Annabella, can’t really be faulted. Gordon and Wilson brought youthful vigor and freshness to their roles and were a joy, especially early on. They and the nine other players achieved some almost musical effects with the rhythms of their verse, although Wilson was usually a few notches too quiet to be fully intelligible. The vivid designs by Nick Ormerod, relying on black, white, and red as the dominant colors, provided dramatic clarity without being schematic.

What troubled me was Declan Donnellan’s direction. He trimmed the text and the character count; without intermission, the show ran just under two hours (certainly shorter than the full play, though I don’t know by how much). He and Ormerod placed a bed at center stage, suggesting, rather reductively, that lust and not love is what drives Giovanni and Arabella (maybe that’s true of the others, but not them). This also limited the staging, though much less than I expected. Donnellan livened things up with music-and-dance moments–even a wedding song–which contributed to the contemporary atmosphere he wanted but seemed daft on one occasion (dancing cardinal?). What really seemed unfair was that the text never got to speak for itself for long. Something had always to be happening. Usually, someone was dressing or undressing—there was a lot of that. Without exactly trampling the lines, Donnellan’s stage business frequently distracted me from what Ford’s characters were saying, despite my best efforts to listen. ’Twas a pity.

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Cooper’s London

April 6, 2012

DISCOVERY: Georgia Jarman
Color-atura Her Delightful!

The latest operatic diva discovery in London this season was the American soprano Georgia Jarman. Taking on all four roles in the new Richard Jones Tales of Hoffman, she pretty much stole what was a very strong show. Perhaps this was simply because she was such a surprise! Everyone knew the production would be interesting, inventive, provocative and thought-provoking (as well as very attractive to look at). And everyone was prepared for Barry Banks to be a strong if somewhat vertically challenged Hoffman; for Christine Rice to be an appealing and luscious-voiced Nicklause; and for Clive Bayley to be brilliant (both vocally and dramatically) as all four villains. But they are all ENO regulars—very popular, known entities.

Everyone also expected that the four soprano roles would be well cast; but no one was expecting quite the level of accomplishment that Georgia Jarman showed in both her singing and acting in the roles of Stella, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. It’s invidious to single her out, in a sense, when everything else about the production was so spot-on, including the definitely sensitive-to-the-Donizetti-idiom, yet seriously clean and personal conducting of Antony Walker; but she really was the major discovery of this event. Watch out for her! Her coloratura is astonishingly bright and clean; the quality of the voice is very appealing; and she has a completely convincing stage presence.

You can hear her voice on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyg02nj6Ex8and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMyrZ61EVRI and possibly most impressively at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDHyQN1-xNE&feature=relmfu if you’re curious. There’s also a short interview done for the ENO at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol_W0mtIkn4&feature=related. Jarman will be appearing worldwide next season, and will be returning to the Met for 2012-13.

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