Refurbishing Classics

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desire-under-the-elms.jpgAs regular readers of this blog would know by now, I am the biggest fan of refurbishing dramatic classics.  What I hate the most is going to the theater and coming away underwhelmed and unsurprised, seeing something that I could have seen at a high school drama club production for free or for much less money.  I strongly believe that classical theater is universal and timeless, so a clear-minded, courageous, inspired director and/or adapter can transpose a play’s themes to different milieus and time periods and have them resonate with a wide variety of audiences.  Additionally, directors can reinvigorate classical text by introducing various theatrical devices and elements (a reimagination of the set design, evocative musical scoring, new sound effects, etc.) that the playwright might not originally have included in the play.  Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of seeing fresh takes on classics many, many times, but two of the most memorable had been Robert Falls’ magnificent King Lear at the Goodman in 2006 with Stacy Keach, set during the Balkan civil war, which gave unexpected layers to the power themes of Shakespeare’s play; and Charles Newell’s hip, modern, radical redo of another Shakespeare play at the Court Theater last year, Titus Andronicus, set during an initiation rite at an elite boys’ prep school, which also took the play to startling interpretations (you can read my blog post here).   Serious lovers of theater can warm themselves up this frigid season with Falls’ and Newell’s new reimaginings of classical drama – Desire Under the Elms, the centerpiece of the Goodman’s extraordinary O’Neill Festival, and Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the MCA Chicago, respectively.  I think both are notable, much, much better than any other night in many of the theaters in this theatergoing town, which says a lot.  So on that level, I think both of these productions have succeeded.  However, although I found Desire Under the Elms riveting and I was blown away by many of Falls’ directorial choices, I still came out a little baffled and disconnected.  The Wild Duck, for me, is the bigger disappointment.  I was really looking forward to Newell’s take and came out not just perplexed also with some of his directorial approaches, but also with the feeling that the production, despite good intentions, was stale.

Falls’ Desire Under the Elms just opened this Monday but has already received divisive reactions – the critics (except for Christopher Piatt at TimeOut Chicago) are busily falling all over themselves declaring this to be the theatrical event of the season, if not the year, but many regular audience members have been vigorously disagreeing with them (check out the very animated discussion on Chris Jones’ blog).  I’m probably somewhere in the middle, despite the fact that I was very lucky to attend a performance where Falls generously conducted an hour-long audience talkback and explained many of the elements in this production that the blog commenters just didn’t get.  First of all, a lot of people are yakking about the fact that there are no elms in this production.  Instead there are boulders, lots of them, on stage and hanging behind a scrim, so much so that the play seems to be Desire Under or Over the Boulders, which is ticking off O’Neill purists big time (the elms have a metaphorical meaning – they symbolize Ephraim’s dead wife and Eben’s mother).  I agree with the use of the boulders, though, to emphasize the tough, hard-scrabble life of the Cabots on the farm that makes the vicious fight for that land and that house among the three lead characters (including Abbie, the new young wife) all the more tragic, and more primeval.  As Falls said in the talkback, it was an artistic decision – he decided to make this staging a true tragedy, since O’Neill’s intent was to write a Greek tragedy, American style, not the romantic melodrama that define other productions of this play.  I get it and laud him for it.  I get the mix and match of time periods (for example Abbie’s dresses are all 1940s-era while the men’s costumes look like late 1800s, the time period that the play is set in), which enables the theme that this play can happen at any time, that this play is contemporary.  What I’m less sold on is the engineering feat that is a house  hanging over the actors (Falls said this was to create the oppressive nature of the environment; I thought it was show-offy and distracting), and the use of the Bob Dylan song, “Not Dark Yet” to score a long visual tableaux of life on the farm and the burgeoning sexual tension between Abbie and Eben (Falls said he thought the song’s lyrics were appropriate to the material, and he wanted audiences to be startled in the middle of the play; ok, I would have been more startled if he played an Amy Winehouse song in an O’Neill production, I mean if you are going to try and shock people with your directorial choices, then go all the way with it).  I didn’t really come away with a cohesive understanding of Falls’ vision and intent, unlike King Lear.

I didn’t need to get sold on the performances though.  They are all magnificent, and some of the best performances on stage in Chicago right now.  They are operatic, sometimes appropriately overwrought, larger-than-the-Goodman-stage, intense and harrowing, and they serve O’Neill’s drama well. Daniel Stewart Sherman and Boris MacGiver as the two older brothers come off, in their brief roles, as both savage man-apes and emotionally-battered sons (I love the scene they taunt Dennehy before leaving for California to prospect for gold).  Pablo Schreiber is mesmerizing as Eben.  Although not the most interesting character, Eben has the most interesting arc:  he moves from what O’Neill calls “soft” (Eben actually took over all of his dead mother’s farm duties, the “female” work of cooking, cleaning, etc.) and “half-fool” to terrified, schizo boy-man, both repelled and hopelessly attracted to his father’s young wife to noble lover willing to take the blame for his loved one’s crime.  Schreiber nails this rollercoaster of emotions brilliantly (and looks absolutely divine in his nude bathing scene!).  Dennehy demonstrates once again why he is the consummate O’Neill interpreter – his Ephraim is monstrous, death-defying, stage-enlarging, but also exceptionally nuanced.  When he tells Abie that he would rather sleep with the animals in the barn, a little click went on in my head brought about by his line readings that made me think maybe Ephraim is going senile, an important point which makes Daddy Dearest as World’s Greatest Cuckold believable.  But this production ultimately belongs to the dazzling Carla Gugino as the selfish, grasping, seductive, guile-filled, love-starved Abbie.  I’ve seen her only in episodes of her brief tenure in the early 2000s sitcom Spin City, so I was totally unprepared to be blown away by her.  Gugino commands the stage (which is quite the feat given that Dennehy and those gargantuan boulders plus that hanging house is competing with her constantly) whenever she’s on it and she plays both big and bold, and subtle and intimate, a Turandot with both grand gestures and intricately detailed emotions.  The way she performs the story’s climax – hunched shoulders, punched-in face, quiet presence- allows the audience to understand that Abbie has committed a crime without us actually seeing it happen onstage.

Unfortunately, the acting in The Wild Duck is probably a significant part of why I ultimately did not care for this production.  These are some of Chicago’s best actors, but I’m not sure why Charlie Newell directed them in such a way that there’s a clash of acting styles.  Jay Whittaker’s Gregers is a detailed character study of a righteous-acting man insensitive to the emotional havoc he is wreaking.  It’s a performance full of intricately choreographed gestures (in the first scene, the way he puts his hand on Kevin Gudahl’s, playing Hjalmar, knee establishes without the use of words the very deep and long-standing friendship he has with this man).  Gudahl, on the other hand, plays Hjalmar, the delusional, social-climbing pseudo-inventor, broadly, loudly, in a Marx Brothers-in-a-Stateroom kind of way.  (And I must agree with Chris Jones’ observation that he seems miscast, looking way older than Whittaker’s Gregers when they are supposed to be boyhood buddies).  Mary Beth Fisher, who is ultimately heartbreaking as Gina, Hjalmar’s wife, comes off low-key, businesslike, and, at the onset, almost drab in her subtlety.  And then there’s Laura Scheinbaum, as Hjalmar and Gina’s daughter, Hedvig, in admittedly, a showy role, delivering her lines at the top of her voice and rushing around the stage frenetically, looking like either someone auditioning for The Crucible or a groupie in a Jonas Brothers’ concert moshpit.  I don’t understand it at all.

Then there’s the set.  Noted architect Leigh Breslau had already collaborated with Newell before (he was responsible for the striking metal and mirrors concoction for Titus Andronicus, for one), and here he creates a mammoth, scene-stealing loft for the house that Hjalmar and his family live in.  It is breathtaking- complete with huge picture windows, massive doors, a walkway and stairs going up to the theater’s ceiling.  It is also very LARGE.  So large that I wanted the characters to have rollerskates on, be on skateboards or treadmills or escalators, use anything that will move them quickly from one end to another (both horizontally and vertically), because there’s so much running around this massive space.  Again, I don’t get it.  Maybe I’m not bright enough, but what did this set have to do with advancing Ibsen’s theme of people creating delusions to make themselves happy but ultimately ending up in a vicious circle of unhappiness?

There’s other directorial touches that distanced the production from me as an audience member.  The use of photographic white light (Hjalmar makes his living as a photographer) during key emotional scenes is quite precious for my taste, for example.  The slapstick that permeates most of Act II is jarring.  Ibsen’s text is still engaging and meaningful, of course, but ultimately, I really did not come away from this production with any sense of what new or fresh or, there’s that word again, cohesive insights Newell is making about Ibsen’s terrific play.  It is, I hate to say it, an ordinary production – good enough for other theater companies, perhaps, but in my mind, not up to the bar that the Court had set for itself (and to its $56 ticket price).

Desire Under the Elms is running at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn, till March 1.  Note though that Carla Gugino leaves the production after February 17 (maybe to promote Watchmen?).  The Wild Duck is at the MCA Chicago Stage, 220 E. Chicago Ave., till February 15.

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2 Responses to “Refurbishing Classics”

  1. Henri Says:

    I have now seen this production of The Wild Duck 1.5 times. It just failed on all aspects. For more failed Ibsen revivals, read the New York Times review of Hedda Gabler, currently playing on Broadway.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Henri. Yes, “Hedda Gabler” has been savaged by the New York critics (I personally can’t see Mary-Louise Parker be effective in this role, given her loopy, eccentric acting style). Ibsen CAN be fresh, exciting, thoughtful. Two years ago, the National Theater of Norway showed up at the BAM New Wave Festival and took New York by storm with a minimalist “The Wild Duck” set in the 1950s. Ok, so they’re Norwegians, Ibsen’s heirs, not Chicagoans, but still…

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