Thursday, September 15, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Tearing Down Bridges" (on Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge)


tearing down bridges
by Douglas Messerli

Arthur Miller A View from the Bridge / Los Angeles, Ahmanson Theatre, the performance I saw was opening night, September 14, 2016
 

Image result for A View from the BridgeI have to admit that Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, with its hyperventilated incestuous urges, its homosexual slurs, and even a hint of homoerotic desire, all circling round the well-meaning but not so bright longshoreman Eddie, has never been one of my favorite plays. 
      At least in the production I saw last night at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, famed Dutch director Ivo Van Hove tossed out the family’s dowdy little apartment stuffed with fussy and falling-apart furniture. The original, in which five people are pushed into a single flat makes for a kind of claustrophobia which, a moments, if it generates some body heat, also takes all the air out the drama. 
     Van Hove, perceiving the play as a kind of Greek drama, has created instead a open rectangular space which serves as living room, bed room, lawyers’ offices and any other space that might be necessary. By creating two side panels of audience seats on the stage itself, the director has further created the sensation of a Greek amphitheater, while simultaneously diminishing the vast space of the stage and allowing for more theater seats. A single central opening, backed in black further creates a sense of dramatic entry as the characters come and go. As in the original, Van Hove uses the family lawyer as the chorus (the metaphorical “bridge” of the play’s title), commenting on and helping to explain the inner feelings of a man who cannot himself express them.
      All of this opens up the play, allowing, as the director as argued, the playwright’s words to speak out their poetry. But, alas, Miller’s language has always been rather pedestrian, most of his figures being everyday blokes; and even though it’s given special privilege here, the character’s utterances feel as dowdy and diminished, at times, as the overstuffed furniture that one encounters in most productions of this play.

Image result for A View from the Bridge     What exacerbates this feeling is that the play has been cast with very young talents. And while all are appealingly fresh thespians, few of them have heft of supposedly Sicilian middle-age figures of whom Miller writes. This is important, in the original, because, except for the two youngest of this household, all others feel worn out and used (just like their now missing furniture), with few choices left. Marco (Alex Esola) may intend, after a few years of working in the US, to return back to Italy and his wife, but we know he will have lost their best years together and will never recover that hole in his life.

       Eddie (Frederick Weller) is so attracted to his growing-up niece because, like a daughter, she has lit up his otherwise drab working-man’s life. His feelings for her, moreover, have a great deal to do with middle-age angst. Like many a hard worker who suddenly discover themselves in their late 40s, he is terrified of what’s ahead. If the new interloper, Rudolpho (Dave Register) does succeed in carrying her off, Eddie will have little joy left.
      Like so many wives of men like Eddie, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols), although loving, feel as if they have been cast off, and in emotional response, find it harder and harder to demonstrate that love.

Image result for A View from the Bridge       This younger cast simply does not have the heft and weight to give these feelings their due. Indeed, the handsome and lean Weller, throughout much of the play, seemed simply too slight and frail to convey the range of emotions raging through his character; at moments we simply couldn’t hear him. At first I feared that my somewhat elderly ears were playing tricks; but as rose to leave at the end of the play, the gentlemen on my left spoke to each other of having the same problem in simply hearing him. It was not that Weller was not a good actor, he simply didn’t yet possess the “gravitas” of the character.
       As Catherine, moreover, Catherine Combs seemed more like a mini-skirted pre-teen than an eighteen-year-old high school graduate set on becoming a stenographer and secretary. I am sure Van Hove made this a conscious decision in order to establish the girlish attitude that innocently crossed sexual lines in her relationship with her uncle. But when the handsome and charming Rodolpho comes into her life, it is a bit difficult to even comprehend his attraction to a being who seems to be still a child. The tall and somewhat lanky Register, moreover, seemed at odds with the diminutive Combs.
     But, finally, it is simply the oppressive obviousness of Miller’s script that dooms his dark drama. We know, almost from the beginning, where this drama is going to take us: in tragedy for male lead, Eddie, and disaster for the two illegal immigrants. The same scenario is being played out in our daily newspapers even today. 
     The only surprise in Miller’s rendering of this tale is Eddie’s confusion over his own sexuality. It is almost as if, since he cannot sexually “have” Catherine, he will convert the handsome Rodolfo into someone whom he might love. In his confused macho thinking the very fact that the young Italian man sings, is easy-going, can quick-design a dress, and dance means that he must be “odd,” code word for gay. In his mind, he may justify his long kiss on the lips with Rodolfo as “outing” the man before Catherine in order to save her; but we know that there’s definitely something else going on there. And it is the only time when Eddie transforms his ever-present anger into some sort of passion; and, accordingly, Miller’s sudden revelation still startles even today. 
      Of course, after such an unthinkable act, he must destroy everyone around him, particularly himself, using his own kind of macho—very much present in the Italian Marco—as a tool of his death. The only hope Miller leaves his audience is that Rodolfo and Catherine may be spared and will go on to create a more fluid familial life. But since Rodolfo, as Marco’s brother, may be implicated in the murder, we cannot even be sure of that.

Los Angeles, September 15, 2016

Monday, September 12, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Left in the Lurch" (on Tennessee Williams', adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann's Baby Doll)


left in the lurch
by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams (screenplay [not credited properly to Elia Kazan], adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann) Baby Doll / Los Angeles, The Fountain Theatre, directed by Simon Levy / the production I saw was on Sunday, September 11, 2016

Since Elia Kazan’s 1956 film Baby Doll was based on Tennessee Williams’ early short play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, and Williams, himself, later rewrote the play as Tiger Tail, it is difficult to know why Pierrre Laville and Emily Mann determined to “re-adapt” the version of the play, named after the movie, I saw the other day at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre. Perhaps one
has to read all the variations, including Kazan’s original script—which he claimed he wrote without Williams’ help—before comprehending the need for yet another rewrite. Certainly, this production, with a few important exceptions, is pretty loyal to Kazan’s motion picture, and in that fact leads anyone who’s seen the wonderful movie to make comparisons. 
      It is perhaps patently unfair to compare the acting abilities of the film foursome—Karl Malden, Carol Baker, Eli Wallach, and Mildred Dunncok—with the younger and far less experienced cast of John Prosky, Lindsay LaVanchy, Daniel Bess, and Karen Kondazian. Although Baker was the least talented of the film cast, she was perfect for the pouting child-bride of the Southern plantation bigot, Archie Lee Meighan. Wallach almost literally steamed-up the screen in his first film appearance back in 1956, and the always solid Malden played his character with near perfection, with Dunnock providing the daffy eccentricity of Aunt Rose Comfort.
     The Fountain Theatre actors try valiantly to recreate these roles, and, at moments, they almost succeed, particularly Prosky—whose actor father I had seen several times on Washington, D. C. Arena stage—who almost captures the sweaty leftover of a once significant land-owner devoted to ginning the cotton of his neighbors. His final violent outrage against the new world in which his good-old-boy tactics are no longer rewarded, is particularly well-performed and almost terrifyingly touching, particularly when he suddenly realizes that his former “associates” are now intending to arrest and try him for his “irrational” behavior.
      Bess (as Silva Vaccaro) does his handsome best to carry out the “tit-for-tat” values hinted at by Archie, as he attempts to seduce Archie’s teenage bride, who, by marriage agreement, is finally to have sex with her husband, after two years of chastity, in two days. But, despite his truly sexy torso and hips, as well as the script’s playful S and M complications wherein he gently and sometimes not-so-gently toys with her while holding a small whip, his acting simply doesn’t add up to the dark and far more horrifying games of hide-and-seek played by the film’s characters as they run through the decaying mansion’s empty rooms (Archie has just seen the furniture company repossess nearly every object in them for lack of payment). At moments Bess seems as sexually na├»ve and even disinterested as his inexperienced target; and we have to wonder, at times, whether or not he’s really more interested in her signature admitting Archie’s guilt in burning down his character’s competing gin-mill or in capturing her girlish body.

        

     Of course, that’s a question the Kazan production itself asks. But here, Lavanchy’s Baby Doll seems far less ready and raunchy than Baker ever did. We know Baker, although playing hard to get, was perfectly ready to undergo the sexual act with her would-be rapist; but Lavanchy, seemingly a bit older than Baker’s version, seems far more confused and confusing, particularly since Lavanchy, alas, seems in the early scenes to be of the “holler” school of acting. I may be losing my hearing a bit, but the high loud pitch of her anger over Archie’s clumsy attempts at love-making came through as too much of a screech, making it far too obvious, that she no longer is the teenage “baby” she pretends to be. And after those early scenes it becomes difficult for Lavanchy to return to the innocent child in her scenes with Bess.
      Kondazian certainly revealed Aunt Rose Comfort as an eccentric human being, but she seemed so crazed at moments that it was simply hard to believe her. Was her passion for chocolates, stolen from dying folks at the near-by state hospital, in the film? I certainly don’t recall it. 
      I do recall the remarkable collard-greens scene, in which the Sicilian immigrant Varcarro and Baby Doll praise the delights of the “pot licker” of Aunt Rose’s uncooked greens simply in order to taunt the angry Archie. As I remember it they both simply slopped up their faces with the awful stuff while turning the act of eating, as in the famous scene in Tom Jones, into a surrogate of sex. On this stage the entire scene appeared more as a pallid attempt to simply to get the older man’s goat.
      Of course, we can’t get the close-ups of a camera, and we haven’t the space to see the couple run through the entire estate, locking themselves away in rooms just in order to dare the other to enter. These actors have only a front porch with a swing and fresh-water well, a small dining room and a tiny bedroom to play out their epic dance. And at moments at the well, on that swing, and in the tiny crib of a bed, this dramatic version really does reveal a kind of steamy and tender love. 
     We never know, in either the film or the stage production, whether or not Vaccaro will return the next day to collect his prize of the young girl and her aunt. Like so many of Williams’ heroines, they are left in the lurch. But after seeing this version I had far more doubts that he might even want to come back.

Los Angeles, September 12, 2016