Thursday, May 21, 2009

The (passive-aggressive) revolution continues...

Yep, still on the company clock, and so many shows left to have frivolous opinions about!

The one that keeps poking its nasty little snout in my ear, asking to be prattled about is God of Carnage, somehow the toast of the Great White Way*. Which is probably appropriate in some desperately grating way, because I think it's exactly the sort of thing that makes a certain segment of the populace you may or may not have any patience for exhale sharply and say "well I mean really isn't Broadway just a bunch of plays about white people's problems?" (and then they have to run along to Problems in Theory: Kristeva through My Hairdresser Who Has One About Everything, and so the discussion ends there.) Honestly, I don't mind if they do take that kind of shot, as the play doesn't stand up to much better. Mock profundity by means of flitting reference to existential concerns may seem to do when you're discussing a class of people nobody in the audience believes to have much of an inner life in the first place [in the adapted version, Cobble Hill stroller jockeys], but at times it seemed to me nobody would give this thing a second look if the cast weren't so game and able.

What it mostly is is** an easy and not especially novel potshot at the thin veneers of civilization marriage and child-rearing depend upon. What else it is is sure-handedly entertaining, here and there brutally funny and, again, gifted with a cast that has seemingly rolled up their sleeves and committed to a roll in the mud for four, in a way it's tough to find fault with even if it's not the very highest quality mud. Gandolfini manages to be a compelling brute without being You-Know-Who; Marcia Gay Harden flinches not once from being head-explodingly irritating; Jeff Daniels somehow manages to make a stock character of modern civilized villainy freshly loathesome and kind of hot; and Hope Davis (the least horrific of them all except that she gets to deliver the show's one rather-too-vile stage effect) maybe does just the opposite trick, slowly revealing that the best of them isn't so by much. But if I'm not wholly in the amen chorus for a play about how parenting has come to be the destroyer of people's ability and will to tame the id and connect, something has gone awry.

Nearby at the Broadhurst, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter do quite the opposite trick, dusting the cobwebs off a play one feels certain would be edifying in the forehanded and backhanded senses of the word in lesser custody. Schiller's Maria Stuart, yep--the source of Donizetti's libretto, I believe, is not what I would have guessed would be the most exciting thing on Broadway but I'm in as much of a position to say so as I ever have been after a monthlong TDF binge, and I will say so. It's made of win, marinated in win, garnished with win. McTeer and Walter are riveting (I do think Walter's role is the harder in some sense; fewer opportunities for the acting equiv of a D flat in alt or a well inflicted glottal stop) and their single, apparently apocryphal confrontation lives up to any operatic reading of the same scene. Purists may find the Konzept--men in business suits, ladies in Ren Fair garb--distracting, but I was on board, emphatically so. It is, by the way, very frequently on TDF, so you can probably see it for $35 though good seats are not guaranteed.

Great, that only leaves like eight shows to write about, and then I'm going to Coraline tomorrow if I didn't mention. I'm like Lucy at the candy factory here, not that I'm complaining.

*if we are to go by where I ended up getting a ticket, which was in a weird little corner behind a railing. Because it's not like I walk around the theater district with a pad going "hey pardon me but what show is the talk of people like you, you big tourist?"

**is

12 comments:

Grrg said...

Schiller is SO GOOD at writing plays. LA Theaterworks did a radio version of Maria Stuarda... or y'know whatever it's called... in February and it was transfixing. And you already know my feelings about Don Carlos. And Chaikovsky's Maid of Orleans. AND WILLIAM TELL. Seriously, he can do no wrong. (This is part of the reason why I want to revive Mercadante's I Briganti... but perhaps that's just me.)

Maury D'annato said...

I'm not saying he isn't a good playwright. I hope that's clear. But it's a lot easier to put on a production of Richard Greenberg or even Tom Stoppard that a non-specialized audience can relate to than it is to do the same with Shakespeare or Aeschylus, it seems to me. And Schiller is more in the latter category: impeccable dramaturgy notwithstanding, it takes a spark of ingenuity to take away the hint of cod liver oil about it. As Elaine May once said of Mike Nichols: "Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact, and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they're as much fun as if they were trash."

bhd said...

I'm guessing most people who see this on Broadway don't know who Schiller is or that the play was written 200 years ago. I suppose that's the benefit (?) of translation and "adaptation"-- you can lose the archaic nature of the language. Also the subject matter, thanks to the movies, is a story a non-specialized audience would pretty much know.

That said, I thought it was pretty cool, too. Now if they would only bring over Michael Grandage's production of Don Karlos, with Derek Jacobi, I'd be a happy camper.

Maury D'annato said...

The thing is, bhd, your comment makes me realize that I've said something badly in a way that looks dismissive of a lot of people I've never met and self-aggrandizing in a way I don't mean. In saying "non-specialized audience," I've been vague and made the wrong point maybe.

Of course Broadway audiences range from people who go to a show just because it's a thing to do (and thank god for them, because there would be a lot less theater without them) to people who breathe theater and know vastly more about it than them and than me. Probably Mary Stuart is something of a self-selecting audience--it's a straight play, and it doesn't have anyone you've heard of from tv in it, and so it pulls in a higher number of people who either know exactly who Schiller is or take the time to read the program note and are not put off by two hundred years. (All playwrights should be dead for two-hundred years! someone once said, more or less.)

I'm struggling to make my point because it turns out I'm not certain what I want to say. I guess this production has made Schiller something I can relate to on a gut level, and if living in New York and knowing the kind of people I know has done anything for me, it's illuminated the fact that I'm pretty middle-brow. Even in something pretty market-friendly like Shakespeare, with plots everyone knows and that we're all told we must love, there is a lot of static and mediation, for me. Certainly I don't find prose from the same time as Schiller a pleasant task, that I can think of.

Bear in mind history and religion are not my stomping ground, so I really didn't know much going in about the plot. And I don't think in this case the translation does all the work, though it's clearly very good. I just think the whole thing is touched by conviction and a lot of good decisions. I saw it twice. And if they bring your Don Carlos, I'll see that, too.

(Do I know you, btw?)

Will said...

OK, I'm in theater (and opera) up to my ears as I design, lecture on and teach both. BUT, Schiller was something else, a revolutionary, a man who passionately advocated social justice, a theater animal who created compelling characters and electrically charged scenes.

Good translations weren't in big supply in the past--when I was studying theater back in the Paleolithic, they were all in a florid late-Victorian style, although Mary Stuart was always a favorite with audiences and ballsy actresses and did get some good modern versions.

Verdi went to Schiller for Masnadieri, Louisa Miller, Giovanna d'Arco, Don Carlos, and a chunk of Forza. Others, as you mentioned, did also, including Beethoven. I haven't seen this revival yet but I'm delighted that audiences are taking to it and that actors are still advocating his plays. I'm always amazed when people think a 200 or 2500 year old play is bound to be dull. The 60s found out just how explosively relevant Euripides' Bacchae was. Great writers remain great.

Sorry this turned into a sermon, Maury--I just feel passionately about these things.

Maury D'annato said...

You're going to have to forgive me for being minorly pissy for a moment but I think if you boiled down everything I said to "old plays are dull," you were just looking for someone to lecture.

Will said...

No! Nothing of the kind and I apologize if that is the impression given. I truly meant "people" in the broadest sense--I constantly encounter people think baroque operas, or Restoration comedies or Greek tragedies must be dull and impenetrable because they are old. I've even encountered professional critics who exclaim on how vital and interesting an ancient play can be. I'm well aware that you are not of that ilk.

bhd said...

Sorry if I misinterpreted. I wasn't actually suggesting that a non-specialized audience was a bad thing. And I wasn't judging the audience by anything you said but by the comments I read on the show's Facebook page, and on various other blogs, which tend to be generated by people who are really enthusiastic about the show but clearly aren't that concerned with the history of the play or its author. Which is fine, because all that's left to anoraks like me :-)

Anyway, Schiller being something of my wheelhouse, what I've noticed over the years is that Schiller himself has a curious invisibility in the anglophone world, even when his work is on the stage (in whatever form, usually operatic). For instance, I once heard Andrew Porter expound for 20 minutes on the history of Verdi's Don Carlo without once ever mentioning there was source material involved.

So, long story long, I'm all for casual theater-goers having a look in at the Broadhurst. And if they like what they find there, so much the better, because these plays are fun and have a lot to offer...imho...

jfmurray3 said...

I fell in love with the idea of Schiller after seeing Verdi's Don Carlo. Then I read the Schiller play, and I realized how in awe of him I was.

I loved Mary Stuart. I agree about the production, and I also agree that Mary has the more "theatrical" role. Both gals held their own.

Grrg said...

And for the record, my initial comment was only meant to echo and amplify what you wrote in the actual post, not contradict or correct it at all...

Maury D'annato said...

Oh, whatever. People need hardly justify themselves in the face of my reactive irritability when I'm caught working things out after writing about them. For once I'd like to delete the entire comment thread + article, but it seems unsporting so I won't.

David said...

Well, I'm not pouring any oil on minorly troubled waters. I just wanted to say that seeing Michael Grandage's production of Schiller's Don Carlos starring the great Jacobi made me think there were things in it as great as Verdi's opera - and that's saying something, since it's probably my Desert Island Italian opera. The King-Posa dialogue is one of the great scenes even WITHOUT all that bass v baritone stuff going on.

And it was done very straight. I hope you get it in NY. It was also broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and worked very well there too.

Actually we haven't done too badly in Blighty for Schiller - three Don Cs over the years, two Mary Stuarts (the first at the National with Isabelle Huppert vs Anna Massey. They don't do enough Schiller at the Nat, though).