Sunday, May 26, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Performing Iconic Theater" (on Beckett's Happy Days at the Mark Taper Forum) and Tennesse Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (on the Odyssey Theatre)

performing iconic theater
by Douglas Messerli

Samuel Beckett Happy Days / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum / the performance I saw with 
     Deborah Meadows on May 22, 2019
Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire / Dance On Productions at the Odyssey Theatre /  
     the performance I saw was with Thérèse Bachand on May 25, 2019

This past week I saw two famed plays each at opposite ends of Los Angeles, downtown and on the west side, that reminded me just how difficult it is to do iconic plays—works so memorable through previous productions or movie versions of them that it forces a knowledgeable theater-goer to compare them with what has come before them. Both Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (performed at the distinguished Mark Taper Forum, the play directed by James Bundy) and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at one of the most prestigious LA independent multiplex theaters, Odyssey Theatre Company, this production produced by Dance on Productions, directed by Jack Heller) recalled similar problems I had recently had with a local production of Long Day’s Journey into the Night, wherein, unfortunately, I kept comparing the actors to the impressive movie production, starring Kathleen Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell, directed by Sidney Lumet.
      Fortunately, the case of Happy Days, the central actor was the remarkable Dianne Wiest, one of my favorite actresses on both stage and screen. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective) I was too young to have seen the famed Ruth White performance of 1961. But I did, in 2014, see a quite marvelous production of this play in Pasadena’s Boston Court with Brooke Adams as Winnie, and her husband Tony Shalhoub playing a the one-line roll of Willie.
      Whereas Wiest sped through her role, making the partially buried Winne a bit like a train wreck that has left her in the chasm from which she cannot escape, bringing into focus all of Beckett’s hilariously absurd lines—the Taper audience was clearly alert to even the subtlest of the author’s humorous jabs—Adams had performed the play in a kind of slow-mode, revealing the endless repetitions, a bit like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, of a daily life performed while waiting to die, or to be buried alive.

     It’s not that Wiest isn’t almost perfect for this role, surely one of the best of her now long career; it’s just that I couldn’t help but compare the two performers and the bits and pieces I have seen on archival sites of Ruth White’s version. If Wiest brings out Winnie’s comic embracement of “the best of all possible worlds”—she is, indeed, a kind of student of Voltaire’s Pangloss if there ever was one—Adams was able to demonstrate the poignancy of living while yet representing the absurdity of the Beckettian trope of “I can’t go on; I will go on.”
     Similarly, Michael Rudko as the Taper’s Willie, is a wonderfully comic figure, popping up from his hole just often enough to make Winne believe she is not truly speaking only to herself. And in the second scene with Winnie buried up to her neck, particularly, Weist and he came into their own, finally gently confronting one another and their fears. Weist’s attempt to encourage Willie to come near her so that she can better see him is a touching moment of love and utter frustration, which adds a dimension to her character that almost redeems what I had felt previously as her lack of voiced modulation. And that, in the end, have been the major problem for me: Weist is a genius when in comes to certain roles that demand a kind of one-level type of character: the Woody Allen wide-eyed and somewhat innocent woman or in the role of Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or even the wide-eyed Emily of Our Town; but although Winnie may be a Candide-like figure, she is also a salty pragmatist who has perhaps driven her husband and herself into their tapped lives. I never felt I heard in her voice the full dimensions of these two extremes.

     Any company who might bravely present a new production of the great Williams’ masterpiece has my approval. And the Dance On group—with Susan Priver playing Blanche DuBois, the handsome Max E. Williams as Stanley Kowalski, Melissa Sullivan as Stella, and Christopher Parker as Mitch—has nothing but my admiration.
     Surely they know that with legendary figures such as Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and others having literally defined their roles, that any revival can only compared in the minds of a mature audience. And the actors and director here actually gave homage, in part, to these figures, as well as the great original director of both the stage play and film Elia Kazan.
     If the actor Williams can never quite hope to match the sort of humorous lowlife of Brando’s Stanley, he certainly looks better with his buff body than the more feminine-looking Brando. In this case, you can truly comprehend why Stella has stayed with him; he’s like a stupid-minded body that you can’t keep your eyes off. Stella, in this production is obviously addicted, just as her sister, to sex—without any of the good-girl Mississippi pretensions.
     If Blanche, at heart, is all about desire, Stella with Stanley make such desires obviously apparent. And while I’ve always thought Kim Hunter’s Stella’s was a little slow-minded, Sullivan’s portrayal represents a lusty, level-headedness that demonstrates how she might be a good lover and mother for the rest of her life.
      Director Jack Heller perceived from his other Williams’ plays such as Kingdom of Earth, just how much actress Priver was a figure perfect for the playwright, and here she gives a rather credible rendition of the Vivien Leigh figure, a woman on the way out who would like to pretend—and is deluded enough to try to pretend—that she is still a woman whom men might want.
      In the movie, the sparks flew simply because of the completely different acting styles of Brando and Leigh, the New School and traditional British character-acting traditions. And Heller attempts to repeat that, despite the fact that the former ice-hockey Canadian Williams has probably never been in the halls of such an acting school.
      Indeed, this production has all the hallmarks of Kazan’s style. But in the process of paying homage, it misses much of the point of the playwright himself. Rumor has it that in the original Broadway production, the playwright sat in the back rows sniggering through the whole production. I believe it, but even if it weren’t true, it should be. For A Streetcar Named Desire is really a very funny play, with the “dumb Pollack” Stanley, with his ridiculous pretensions of the paternalistic Napoleonic Law squaring off with a totally delusional “whore” (she has, after all, lured even a 17 year old male student into her bedroom and perhaps has slept with every passing soldier and salesman that every passed through Laurel, Mississippi, all of this after, in her youth, having mistakenly married a handsome homosexual boy whose death she triggered) who now demands that the hard-working momma’s boy, Mitch, attend to her with chivalrous demeanor of a knight-in-waiting. She wants magic, while Stanley wants realism. It’s a truly hilarious dance, with poor Stella, the star come down to earth, caught in between.
      And that is the problem with this production. If Wiest plays Winnie primarily for the laughs, this Streetcar plays out as a kind of dirge for a woman terrified—after an entire life of desire—of death in almost a Wagnerian fashion. But that isn’t Williams really. Anyone who could write lines such “The blind leading the blind,” or, even better, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers,” is also suggesting a kind of pre-Sontag notion of camp. Blanche is one of the campiest figures who has ever been put upon the stage, I’d argue. And this company makes it all so very, very serious, the way Kazan perceived it.
      At least Heller doesn’t make poor Stella run with her baby up the stairs to her neighbor’s apartment. Instead, as Blanche meets the people from the insane asylum, this director sort of shuffles Stella and her neighbor off to the side, apparently on the street. But why cut the truly beautiful last encounter between her rapist husband and his wife which appears in Williams’ original version, which almost redeems both of them as human beings?: “Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now, love. Now, now love. Now, love....” This is perhaps the most tender moment that Stanley has in the entire play.
      Once again, the standing-room audience loved the production, as with Happy Days, applauding the company’s opening night with a standing ovation—perhaps as they should have. I may just be, in the end, a grumpy critic who has seen too many productions of these works and can’t get the comparisons out of my head.
      Yet, I won’t stop attending to these works and many other such iconic plays, hoping to find a production that makes me completely forget what came before it. Memory can be a dangerous thing, as well as a blessing; how I would love to see these works afresh.

Los Angeles, May 26, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (May 2019).

Monday, May 6, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Literature Stirs the Emotions" (on Nilo Cruz's Anna of the Tropics)

literature stirs the emotions
by Douglas Messerli

Nilo Cruz Anna of the Tropics / produced by OpenFist Theatre Company, performed at the Atwater Village Theater / the performance I attended was on May 5, 2019

The Anna of Nilo Cruz’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna of the Tropics is Tolstoy’s tragic figure Anna Karenina. Yet Cruz’s play overall seems more like a Cuban-version of a Chekov work—a sort of post-modern cut-up (Cruz studied with the great experimental Cuban-born playwright Irene Maria Fornes) of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard with a dollop of Three Sisters thrown in.
       The family business of these characters—Santiago (Steve Wilcox), his wife Ofelia (Jill Remez), their daughters Conchita (Presciliana Esparolini) and Marela (Jade Santana), along with Santiago’s angry half-brother Cheché (Antonio Jaramillo), and Conchita’s husband Palomo (Javi Mulero)—is cigar-making, the old fashioned way, rolled by hand, a process we literarily witness several times throughout this play.
       Even from the very beginning of Cruz’s work, we cannot help but notice tensions as Santiago and Cheché bet on cockfights, with Santiago, the small factory owner, losing his heavily to his half-brother, and then desperately asking for a loan with an agreement to pay it back by carving the amount and his own name into Cheché’s shoe. Cheché’s wife has previously left him, and we can guess why.
       This family, moreover, is rolling its Cuban cigars not in Havana but in the 1929 Ybor City, Florida, a neighborhood of Tampa, with the Depression, we all know, a year away. Even family members perceive that the famed cigars they are creating are losing out to cigarettes (fags) smoked now by most of the movie stars. In short there is a sense of doom already hanging over their entire enterprise. They live in a past that is no longer relevant in the decaying American climate.

       They stubbornly stick to their Cuban traditions, however, with Ofelia demanding they hire a “Lectore de Tabaqueres,” a reader who, while the workers repeat their endless manual activities, enchants and sometimes distracts them with wonderful stories. The lector she hires, Juan Julian (the excellent Byron Quiros) chooses to first read for them the great Tolstoy novel, which almost from the first page—a bit like Madame Bovary’s encounters with novels—begins to utterly change the women’s lives.
        Suddenly, the romantic heroine’s passions and liaisons leaps from the cold Russian landscape into the humid factory in which they are entrapped. As the summer in which they are working grows hotter, so to do their emotions, as the handsome reader Juan fans the flames with his story-telling skills, resulting eventually in a sexual tryst with Conchita about which her philandering husband quickly becomes aware.
        The men are suddenly less important in the mother’s and two daughter’s lives, and their macho attitudes begin to make demands on familial relationships. Santiago, somehow (we never quite know) finds enough money to pay back his debt, and tries to regain control of his small patriarchally based business by throwing a celebration, replete with rum, lanterns, and an announcement that he is creating a new blend of cigars to be called Anna Karenina, using his youngest daughter Marela, dressed in a mink coat and Russian hat, as the model for the new brand. Surely there is something slightly incestual about his sudden attentions.
        She is delighted, but her new costume and her natural beauty also attracts the disappointed and unstable Cheché, who, after desperately trying to regain control of the failing family business by introducing a machine which might take over the cigar rolling, angrily stalks away only to return and rape his half-niece.
       Marela, shocked by the experience, now becomes the frigid Anna, wearing her heavy coat even in the tropical climate in which the family must labor.
       Palomo confronts his wife Conchita about her affair, which she explains has only helped, in bringing love back into her life, to reconfirmed her love for her own husband by allowing her to feel more as a sexual equal. In a strange twist of story that Cruz only hints of, Palomo demands that she describe all her feelings when she is sexually involved with Julian, suggesting a kind of obsession with his rival, which, in turn, hints at possible homosexual feelings. Even his wife wonders about his continual interest in his rival’s sexual attractions.

     All of these complex issues literally boil over, in both Chekhovian and Tolstoyian ways—meaning that they become both somewhat comical and tragic—when Cheché, late for work (spoiler alert), suddenly arrives with a gun in hand, shooting Julian dead.
      To reveal just how Chekhovian Cruz’s play is, the tragic-stricken survivors remain determined to keep their traditions. With no lector now in view, Palomo offers to continue reading Anna Karenina to the workers, thus further linking himself to Julian, finally taking over his role and perhaps his sexual allure to both the women and himself.
      Director Jon Lawrence Rivera has brought this obviously ensemble-based cast to move in patterns that might even suggest a dance, entering, exiting, and returning together to work and play by using the entire Atwater Village Theater space. And scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo has created a set that alternates between a sweat-house factory, a home, and a kind of cathedral (reinforced by the shifting colors of the lights by lighting designer Matt Richer). As for the costumes (by Mylette Nora), who can ever forget Marela in her heavy black coat in a world which the other figures dress in light whites?
      Finally, I have to salute artistic director Martha Demson and the collaborative Open Fist group for continuing to produce such innovative and challenging theater.

Los Angeles, May 6, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (May 2019).