Richard Greenberg became more than just a blip on the theatrical radar screen a dozen years ago with Eastern Standard, a hip comedy about being a liberal who has to cope with financial success. It was geared to appeal to the self-conscious yuppies it portrayed, no less than their detractors. Though Greenberg's sharp wit and elevated language were widely noted at the time, Eastern Standard was perceived as a superficial look at the hot-button issues it trafficked in, including AIDS and homelessness. It had at least one powerful advocate in the New York Times's Frank Rich, however, whose influence prompted the play to sell out its limited run quickly at the Manhattan Theater Club and then transfer to Broadway.
Greenberg's reputation should have soared with a number of superior offerings that followed Eastern Standard. These include The American Plan, a well-disguised variation on Washington Square, set in the Catskills in 1960 to comment on the conformity of the Eisenhower era; and The Author's Voice, a whimsically fiendish, one-act gem about a vacuous author with a secret: his gnomelike ghostwriter. And, although it opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1997, Three Days of Rain has yet to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. This cleverly crafted play concerns a triangle composed of a pair of middle-aged siblings and their intimate friend in the first act, before it backs up thirty-five years to focus on their respective parents. While it zooms in on one generation's inability to comprehend its parents' behavior--as well as its tendency to repeat their mistakes--Rain leaves us with the haunting realization that the past can be every bit as unknowable as the future.
Today Greenberg is back with his ambitious new play, Everett Beekin, at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. By introducing us in Act I to a Jewish family just after World War II, and then to their offspring fifty years later in Act II, Beekin expands upon a number of themes Greenberg handled so gracefully in Rain. Part One, "The Shabbos Goy," is set on the Lower East Side in the late 1940s, evoking an old-fashioned family drama by Clifford Odets, with a good deal of humorous repartee added for some verbal shpritzing. In contrast with their émigré mother, Anna (Bebe Neuwirth) and Sophie (Robin Bartlett) are doing their best to assimilate in the new, heterodox world. With husbands and homes of their own in the new suburbs, they have made their weekly pilgrimage to Ma's tenement, where eventually we also meet their frail and ailing younger sister, Miri (Jennifer Carpenter).
The "goy" of the act's title is Jimmy (Kevin Isola), a gentleman caller who ultimately divulges that he and Miri have plans to marry--much to Ma's dismay. We also hear a good deal about Everett Beekin VI, an Army pal with whom Jimmy plans to open a pharmaceuticals company in Southern California.
Though the eponymous Beekin remains an offstage figure in Part One, he is represented by both his son Bee (Jeff Allin) and his grandson Ev (also Isola) in Part Two, titled "The Pacific." Set in Orange County, California, in the late 1990s, the second half of Beekin feels like new territory for Greenberg, and may prove jarring to those members of the audience who felt particularly comfortable with the more conventional first part. In lieu of the ultrarealistic kitchen-sink set and the familiar sitcom terms that preceded the intermission, the stage is now stripped bare, the playwright's realm more abstract. Along with the suddenly fragmented language and a reliance on Donald Holder's bold lighting effects to indicate the setting, this is all a part of Greenberg's larger scheme, reinforcing the notion that Old World traditions have yielded to the flimsy or more transient values of today.
Into this terra-far-from-firma arrives Celia (played also by Bartlett), with whom Anna was pregnant in Part One. With a couple of family secrets in tow, the frumpy Celia has just flown in from New York to attend the wedding of her niece Laurel (Carpenter), who's slated to marry Ev. Meanwhile, Laurel's mother, Nell (Neuwirth), is having an affair with Ev's father, Bee. Given that the sleek Nell is Celia's younger sister, any number of connections to the Beekin clan suddenly seem feasible. But as Celia tells Nell about an aunt they never knew they had, it becomes clear that Miri died quite young, before marrying Jimmy or moving to California.
With her razor-sharp wit and a cynicism she occasionally wields against herself, Celia is a typical Greenberg creation. She feels out of her element in Southern California; but then, everyone--and especially the younger, verbally challenged characters--has difficulty expressing themselves in this new and alienating environment. Laurel calls Aunt Celia to tell her, with incomplete thoughts and broken phrases, that she doesn't want to go through with the marriage. "It's like I'm...my whole life...I want to live my life! Do you know how young I am? Fuck!" she offers by way of explanation. After the bride-to-have-been runs away to New York, it's Ev's turn to phone the visiting New Yorker and reluctant analyst. "Could we talk a little?" he asks awkwardly. "Yes, sure," says Celia. After a loaded pause, Ev asks, "Could you start?" Or consider this exchange: When Celia sardonically asks Bee, "Do you ever say anything interesting?" He responds, "Nope. Don't have to. Got money."
Greenberg may veer toward the cliché by revisiting such well-traversed territory, but he captures today's Orange County lingo with fresh-squeezed precision. He also introduces certain trite notions only to disabuse us of them later. Bee, for instance, may indeed seem like just another empty-headed Californian or a self-proclaimed "venture capitalist" with nothing to say, but he ultimately delivers an eloquent monologue about the first five Everett Beekins. To add that his tale is presented as family lore and possibly mythical is to further the playwright's ongoing message about a past we can only try to piece together.
Under the sympatico direction of Greenberg's longtime collaborator Evan Yionoulis, the actors burrow deep to locate the emotional truths their characters have difficulty articulating. With skillfully modulated accents and magisterial authority, Bartlett and Neuwirth flip from playing Sophie and Anna to become Celia and Nell in Part Two. As the Yiddish-inflected matriarch in part one, Marcia Jean Kurtz conjures the late, great Molly Picon. And Isola and Carpenter prove particularly effective in rendering the California newspeak of Ev and Laurel. Having actors double up to become their characters' descendants (in Beekin) or their ancestors (in Rain) may be confusing at first, but it also adds another dimension to Greenberg's already multifaceted designs.
While inviting us to compare an older generation with a younger, Jews and WASPs, West Coast and East, Everett Beekin becomes a thought-provoking prism, refracting innumerable connections as they spin in and out of our purview. With this play, Greenberg has mastered the art of telling a story between the lines, of using hints and nuance, like Chekhov, to say far more than can be said directly. This is not only characteristic of poetry but a part of Greenberg's overriding message: Life is always to be found--or missed--in the details.
When a playwright's mission to challenge the status quo arose as a topic during a Lincoln Center symposium this past summer, Edward Albee quipped, "We write plays in the hopes that they won't be necessary." Though he was referring to himself as well as fellow panelists Arthur Miller and John Guare, he may as well have been speaking for Lee Blessing. Blessing is not only, like Greenberg, an underestimated playwright, but also one of our most politically motivated.
In addition to his antiracist Cobb, his highly pro-feminist Eleemosynary and his grappling with decades of heartland homophobia in Thief River, Blessing wrote a probing play about Kimberly Bergalis, the "innocent" victim of AIDS who was infected by her dentist in Florida. (Given Blessing's evenhanded treatment of the thornier aspects of the story, anyone who saw Patient A would probably be surprised to learn that it was commissioned by the Bergalis family.) A Walk in the Woods, Blessing's Broadway and West End hit, concerned nuclear disarmament talks. In addition to being staged in Moscow, Woods became the only Broadway play ever performed in its entirety for the Senate and the House of Representatives--where, alas, it should be revived today.
In light of its focus on Arab terrorists, Blessing's Two Rooms might seem a timely response to the events of September 11. Rather, this 1988 drama--in revival at the tiny Blue Heron Theater through late November--emerges as a potent reminder that our war with various factions in the Middle East commenced long before the World Trade Center attacks. As Michael Wells (Thomas James O'Leary) says in the play's opening monologue, "These people have been taking hostages for thousands of years. They know how to do it." A thirtysomething American who had been teaching in Beirut, Michael was captured a year before the play begins. The scenario shifts between Michael in his cell and his wife, Lainie (Monica Koskey), who has returned to their home in the United States. Lainie has emptied Michael's office of all its furnishings in her desperate attempt to duplicate what she imagines to be his prison environment.
In her introductory remarks, Lainie talks about the problems she's had dealing with both Damascus and Washington. "It's hard to know which was worse," she says, before deciding that it was "definitely Washington. The Arabs wouldn't help me, but at least they'd respect the pain. In Washington, I was the pain."
The thrust of the drama is less on Michael's plight than on Lainie's response, encompassing the ways she's manipulated by both Walker (Steve Cell), a journalist, and Ellen (Beth Dixon), a State Department bureaucrat assigned to the case. Servicing their own ends, these two puppeteers provide Lainie with contradictory advice. While Walker points out that the government can't be trusted in hostage situations, Ellen is dismayed that the writer has been briefing Lainie. "We have no way of knowing what public statements by hostage relatives may do," Ellen admonishes Lainie. "It could make it even harder for us to secure a safe return."
Typical of Blessing, he makes his more academic points in Two Rooms without harming the integrity of his drama--even though he includes a couple of lectures, replete with slide shows. The lecture that opens Act II seems uncanny, as if it were written in the wake of September 11. As she begins to project a dizzying number of slides of young Shiite terrorists, Ellen says:
He may be college-educated.... He may be a shepherd, with no education whatsoever. He may speak English, or only Arabic.... He may be utterly committed to his cause, or only doing this because it provides work and food and some measure of security.... Here's another one.... And another.... And another, and another, and--thousands in the country. And this of course is only one country. Think of it--enormous numbers of people all over the world hating Americans.... Why? They watch our television, you know. See our films, wear our clothes, drive our cars, listen to our music. They use our technology--what they can afford of it. They learn in our universities. What do they learn? That by sheerest accident, they have been born in a part of the world which has no power. That to be an uneducated person in a small country, speaking a bypassed language, worshipping an old-fashioned god is worse than death.... In a real sense, the Crusades are here again. We in the State Department understand that. It's our job to be ready to sacrifice the few for the many when necessary, and we do.
There are few actors who could remain in character while delivering such didactic oratory. But clad in a pinstriped suit and frizzled hair, Dixon is always on target as the no-nonsense, if ultimately sympathetic, Ellen; and O'Leary keeps finding deeper layers to Michael, especially as the prisoner's incarceration spans three years and his apprehension of time deteriorates. Although O'Leary's performance goes a long way toward making this production of Two Rooms the searing drama it has the potential to be, it is slightly undermined by Roger Danforth's uneven direction, and by Koskey and Cell's over-emoting as Lainie and Walker.
While a number of more established playwrights continue to command the limelight with lazy and rehashed works, the frequently rewarding fare of Richard Greenberg and Lee Blessing remains relatively undervalued. Both Everett Beekin and Two Rooms remind us that the theater can compel us to reconsider what we thought we knew. And that's theater at its best.
"There's something about this place that is toxic," says the timid guest, cowering on the threshold. Can you blame him? He stands at the door to the dangerous domain of the Dance of Death, and whoever dares to enter had better be prepared for a terrifying tango. Strindberg's poisonous portrait of a marriage is now enjoying (if that's the word) its 100th birthday in a searing New York revival at the Broadhurst Theatre, with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren dancing a devastating pas de deux. And a few blocks away, at the Ambassador, there's a revival of another deadly drawing-room drama, Hedda Gabler, written a decade earlier (1890) by Ibsen, Strindberg's contemporary, starring the splendid Kate Burton. Pioneering work by the twin Vikings of modern drama. Two bracing blasts of Nordic air across the barren landscape of conventional, imprisoning marriage.
Or are they? Are these rusty revivals of nineteenth-century bourgeois melodramas, predictable psychological portrayals of people going crazy in cold climates? Not at all. Both productions, in their new, colloquial versions (by American playwrights Richard Greenberg and Jon Robin Baitz, respectively), preserve the power of the original dramaturgy and at the same time challenge the traditional interpretations and surprise us with fresh, daring approaches. They follow on the heels of The Seagull, by another of their contemporaries (the gentler Chekhov), which enjoyed a star-studded revival in Central Park in August. The trio of masterpieces were written within a ten-year period (1890-1900), and their diva performances (Burton, Mirren and Meryl Streep) provide us with a fortuitous centennial opportunity to revisit them and reassess the contributions of their authors anew.
Take Nicholas Martin's production of Hedda Gabler, which challenges the notion that these classics are set in those dark, claustrophobic "tasteless parlors," giving off "an odor of spiritual paraffin." Henry James, when he said that, hadn't seen Alexander Dodge's smart, high-ceilinged, white-walled set (which is more Noël Coward than Norwegian). The grandeur of this haute bourgeois palace with its promising social prospects makes the ultimate fall of Hedda, the beautiful young socialite who presides over it, all the more horrifying. Played in the past with icy irony (Glenda Jackson's satin-swathed Hedda in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the 1970s) or erotic intensity (Annette Bening in the Los Angeles Geffen Playhouse production of 1999), Kate Burton's surprising Hedda is as bright as those white rooms she circles at high speed, looking for any way to break out of her pristine prison. Newly returned from her honeymoon, Hedda, proud daughter of the legendary General Gabler, finds herself trapped in a suffocating provincial town and in a hopeless marriage to the meek and sheepish scholar Tesman (played effacingly by Michael Emerson). And yet she is determined to maintain her status, which she guards as fiercely as a Fifth Avenue socialite. The unexpected arrival of the fiery Eilert Lovborg, a former suitor and now Tesman's academic rival, shatters the brittle veneer of Hedda's social front and plunges her into a precarious state of potential exposure and loss of status. Subject, furthermore, to an unwanted pregnancy, social and sexual blackmail (by Judge Brack, a purported family friend, played satanically by Harris Yulin) and fear of scandal, Hedda ultimately seeks the only way out--self-destruction--both as an escape and a triumph.
"People don't do that sort of thing," goes the famous closing line of the play, and up until now Burton hasn't either--played such a dark, unsympathetic role. And yet, in her unique and unconventional performance, she gives us a spirited, sardonic, passionate portrayal of a woman we readily recognize--one who is pinioned by both her status and her need for it--one who hitherto has been portrayed as inhuman, but who now invites pity. You've come a long way, Hedda, and so have we.
As surprising as the interpretation of Hedda Gabler is, Sean Mathias's Dance of Death is equally daring. Yes, there's the obligatory Strindberg scariness of people on, and over, the edge. (Strindberg may have called The Doll's House "sick like its father," but he out-Ibsens Ibsen with his ferocious, bitter battles of the sexes, in Miss Julie and numerous other plays, but above all in this one.) And yet, scathing as Mathias's interpretation may be, it's also good Gothic fun. Have you ever laughed out loud at Strindberg, let alone Ibsen? You will, at this production. This Dance of Death is as much a vaudevillian two-step as the lethal anniversary waltz it was written to be, a mockery of the tortures of marriage as much as an exposure of them. Edgar and Alice mark their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary marooned on a tempest-tossed island off the gloomy coast of Sweden, where they have lived the past quarter-century in connubial hell. Edgar is dying of an undisclosed disease and Alice is feverishly cheering him on. Enter Kurt, cousin of Edgar and childhood lover of Alice (played by the subtle David Straithairn), providing a welcome audience as well as a tantalizing triangle. "We are without a doubt the two unhappiest people on earth," declares Alice, and so the dance begins. The happy couple do everything from saber fighting to chasing each other up and down the circular staircase to flaunting infidelity to practicing verbal and physical torture--all but tearing each other to pieces; and yet, miraculously, they find a way to come to terms with the institution of marriage, which Strindberg himself found a living hell (he was unsuccessfully married three times). Says Alice, in the play's final standoff: "So these are the fires of hell and there's no end to it." Says Edgar: "Yes, if we're patient."
This all comes to life vibrantly, thanks to the virtuosic duet of the illustrious British actors McKellen and Mirren (he, notably, of the recent Richard III, she perhaps best known for the series Prime Suspect). Judging from the theater billboard depicting them in a ballroom dance embrace--he, elegant in dashing dress uniform; she, smiling in sleek black velvet--you're hardly prepared for their terrible tango of marital torture. They execute it with precision, wit and a devilishness that makes the movement all the more deadly, and yet at the same time wickedly entertaining. And thanks to the clarity of their performances as Edgar and Alice, we see before us the parents of a whole lineage of marital anguish in modern drama: James and Mary Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eleanor and Henry in James Goldman'sThe Lion in Winter, and above all George and Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not to mention the tortured couple in Scenes From a Marriage, by another Scandinavian, Ingmar Bergman. No one will ever be able to see George and Martha play their ghastly marital games again (remember "Hump the Hostess," "Get the Guests," "Bringing up Baby"?) without thinking of Edgar, Alice and their dance. But it is their sense of humor, playfulness and unexpected flashes of pathos and poignancy in this production that provide unique insights into the ironic consolations of marriage that Strindberg offers in spite of himself.
The contemporary English-speaking stage continues to acknowledge Ibsen's lasting and durable contribution--most recently, with Janet McTeer's majestic Nora in A Doll's House on Broadway in 1997. And now, thanks to a number of recent revivals of Strindberg's plays, we are reminded of why O'Neill referred to him as the "greatest genius of all modern dramatists" in his own 1936 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Notable recent productions include Frank Langella's rabid performance of The Father at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 1996 and Robert Wilson's visionary Dream Play and Ingmar Bergman's Ghost Sonata, both at BAM last season. These have rekindled our interest in this unpredictable, provocative and prolific genius and the scorching truths he offers about relations between the sexes.
No matter what Ibsen and Strindberg may have said about women, they certainly knew how to write them. Their rich, complex female roles have defied stereotype and invited fresh interpretations over the decades. In their performances, Mirren and Burton exhibit a flair and a physical flamboyance that is both commanding and charismatic. In a flowing icy-pink peignoir, Burton's Hedda stalks the stage, rearranging the furniture, lunging at Eilert Lovborg, her movements punctuated by a hectic, piercing laugh. She's dangerous and exciting to watch, with all that pent-up passion and rage unleashed. So is Mirren , who is captivating in her unpredictability, too. As Alice, she transforms herself from a battle-worn shrew in a shabby house dress to a fiery femme fatale in a ruffled satin gown with red tresses flying, while she makes love madly and acrobatically to Kurt on the spiral staircase. There is electricity in both performances reminiscent of Streep's magnetic Arkadina in the recent Seagull, who cartwheeled across the Delacorte stage and rolled on the carpet with her lover Trigorin (Kevin Kline). The three divas dominate their drawing rooms with an impulsive and physical dynamism. Tragedy may lie ahead, but how fiercely alive they are in the face of it.
"I can't figure out if life is a tragedy or a joke," says Edgar to Alice, his lifelong enemy/companion. "George and Martha, sad, sad, sad," echo the war-torn Albee couple, their descendants. Thanks to Ibsen's and Strindberg's provocation, we continue to examine the mysteries of marriage with increasing humor and insight. And who knows, given the way the world's going, we may learn to tolerate the imperfections of companionship and even seek its comforts, in the face of an uncertain future.
"Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write
another one again." So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his
publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was
booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its
incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.
disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky
Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The
Seagull itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be
performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow
Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a
confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate
young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright's
wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same
author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three
Sisters and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of
"new forms" and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution
called modern drama.
And now, 106 years after this
controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again
taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an
arresting production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central
Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of
This Seagull reunites acclaimed director
Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did
Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge
together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of
twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert,
also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with
the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured
stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in
1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie
and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is
attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at
Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip
Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie
Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them,
live!) join Streep in the park's final production of the summer
season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical
play (in Tom Stoppard's clear, respectful version of the text) and
the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as
the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be
remembered, perhaps for decades.
The Seagull tells
the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside
estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who
is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a
coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher,
assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina's son, Konstantin
(Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with
which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous
lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young
actress and the object of Konstantin's desperate affections. The
story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that
star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then
it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It's a play about
love and art and creativity and nature and death--and the alchemy of
all these elements. "I started it forte and ended it pianissimo,
contrary to all the rules of dramatic art," Chekhov wrote, as he
attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as
It's also the first Chekhov play to be
performed in Shakespeare in the Park's forty-season history, and an
irresistible choice, given the natural setting. Still, it's a brave
one, for The Seagull, while sacred around the world in
artistic circles, theater conservatories and academia, remains the
Macbeth of the Chekhovian canon, the one that directors and
producers (especially American) tend to avoid, for fear of its
mystery and impenetrability. Indeed, if you look at the history of
Chekhov in America and the list of publicly acclaimed, "landmark"
productions in recent decades--most notably Lee Strasberg's Three
Sisters (Actors Studio, 1964), Andrei Serban's Cherry
Orchard (Lincoln Center, 1977), Peter Brook's (imported)
Cherry Orchard (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988) and the wave
of popular Uncle Vanyas in the 1990s both on stage and screen
(most notably Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on
Andre Gregory's direction of the play)--The Seagull is not on
But Nichols, whose strongest suits are comedy and
celebrity, has made a wise and timely choice in staging a play
about the theater that is calling such attention to the
theater. And of course the jewel in his crown is Streep, whose
sweeping entrance down the staircase of her estate onto the Delacorte
stage evokes an ecstatic ovation. Whether in mauve or white or
emerald or scarlet, Streep illuminates the night, as she plays the
flamboyant actress who struggles to preserve her passion for the
theater against the hostility of her suicidal son, the stultification
of the Russian countryside, the threat of aging and the danger of
losing her glamour and her lover (to the younger actress). It's a
complex, demanding, potentially unsympathetic role, and Streep
follows in the footsteps of many great actresses on the
English-speaking stage--including Dame Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft,
Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Worth, Susan Fleetwood, Penelope Wilton, Judi
Dench, Felicity Kendall, Rosemary Harris and Blythe Danner--who have
faced its daunting challenges with aplomb. Streep, comedian par
excellence, endows the role with a daredevil panache and and flair
for physicalizing comedy. (Those of us who remember her Dunyasha in
The Cherry Orchard twenty-four years ago at Lincoln Center,
when she fell into a flat-out faint, are astonished once again when
here, in Act II, she erupts into a full-petticoated cartwheel.)
Swanning around the garden, throwing tantrums over a horse and
carriage, nursing her son's wounds tenderly and then insulting him
cruelly, weeping over her finances or tousling with her lover on the
Oriental rug, she ranges across the spectrum of human emotions,
flaunting her character's flaws and capturing our sympathies in the
end. It is a charismatic and commanding performance.
is well matched by her fellow cast members: Marcia Gay Harden's
deliciously dark Masha (dragging around the stage "in mourning for
her life" over unrequited love for Konstantin); John Goodman's
jelly-bellied Shamraev (the estate's manager and would-be baritone),
with his booming "Bravo, Silva!"; Christopher Walken's sprightly
Sorin (a hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Arkadina's aging
brother)--all are finely etched, acrobatic performances, in the
spirit of Chekhov's vaudevillian intent.
There are also
the gentle, bittersweet portrayals of Stephen Spinella's sensitive
schoolteacher Medvedenko; Larry Pine's wise, knowing Dr. Dorn; and
Debra Monk's tender Paulina, whose pathetic hope to reclaim lost love
and youth, like her bouquet of flowers, is torn to shreds.
In the roles of the doomed young lovers and aspiring
artists, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman give unadorned,
affecting performances, courageous in their vulnerability. Hoffman,
known for his flamboyant character roles in film (including Almost
Famous and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and his recent tour de
force on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West, shows great
versatility here with his sensitive, understated portrayal of the
tortured young writer. And Portman's delicate youth and soaring
spirit make her fall all the more heartbreaking in the play's final,
immortal scene, played by both with simplicity and
The illusive role of the writer Trigorin, the
lover who leaves Arkadina for Nina and then abandons Nina and their
child, is, like Arkadina, a dangerously unsympathetic one (it was
originated by Stanislavsky himself, and Chekhov never felt he got it
right). Kevin Kline, distinguished classical leading man (remember
his Hamlet and Ivanov), has given this subtle role an elegant,
seductive, ironic and highly appealing rendering.
The Seagull is considered a realistic play (radically
experimental, at the time it was written), it is in truth an
impressionistic one, and directors are understandably lured by its
suggestive symbolism. Hence, there have been numerous vivid imagistic
productions over the years, including, most recently, Romanian-born
Andrei Serban's Seagull in Japan (1980), with a vast lake on
stage, into which Treplev falls after he shoots himself; Petr Lebl's
white-on-white Art Deco one in Prague (1994); and Michael Greif's
production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1994), where the
back wall of the stage rises at the end of Act IV, revealing
Konstantin's blood-drenched body draped over the piano. In the case
of Nichols's Seagull, the director has trust enough in the
author, the text, the splendid cast and the spectacular natural
setting to allow the play to play itself. Indeed, Central Park
provides everything that Chekhov asked for: a vast outdoor park, a
lake (Turtle Pond) and the silhouette of grand estates (Belvedere
Castle) on the other shore. Bob Crowley (scenic and costume designer)
has provided an elegant, vine-covered mansion stage left, whose
brilliant windows (lit by Jennifer Tipton) blaze against the dark
sky, promising a cozy, safe interior against the dangerous lures of
nature and creativity. Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella wander
in from behind the birches, Natalie Portman rides in on horseback,
Kevin Kline sits silently on the shore and fishes. "Ah, the spells
this lake casts," sighs Larry Pine. (Who needs Hollywood?!)
Above all, Mike Nichols has understood why Chekhov called
this play a comedy. Chekhov, the vaudevillian, the writer of sketches
and short stories, had the soul of a comedic writer in the body of a
dying man. Diagnosed at 29, he died of consumption at the age of 44
(he wrote The Seagull at 35). As a doctor, Chekhov saw life
ironically, in tragicomic terms--"I write about life as it is," he
said. Nichols (once a comedic actor himself), with four award-winning
decades in the theater (directing Simon, Albee, Beckett and Stoppard,
among many others), has his own deep understanding of how comedy and
drama cohabit on the stage. Accordingly, he has inspired comedic
performances that follow the story's descent into sorrow with
simplicity and truth.
"I would like life to flash by in
moments, brilliantly," Chekhov once wrote to his publisher. In the
end, the deep truths of his four great plays are unfathomable, and
productions over the past century have not always been greeted with
praise by the public and the critics. And yet, the glory and eternity
of Chekhov lies in fleeting but indelible moments created on the
stage. For me, there's the memory of Irene Worth running round the
empty house in the last act of Serban's Cherry Orchard, as she
leaves her home forever. Or of Brian Dennehy in Brook's production,
as he pounds his chest and shouts, "It's mine, the cherry orchard is
mine!" Or Ian McKellen's Uncle Vanya clutching his bouquet of roses
at the Royal National Theatre (1993). Or Vanessa and Corin Redgrave
(brother and sister playing the same) in the RNT's current production
of The Cherry Orchard, frolicking on the nursery floor. And
now, add the moment of Meryl Streep's joyful, triumphant cartwheel
under the stars in Central Park, in celebration of life and art and
talent--and return to the theater.
When, halfway through Hamlet, the prince proclaims that the purpose of playing is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," the players listen. As have generation after generation of theater artists returning to the play, and the character, to seek a reflection of their own age. "Hamlet is played everywhere, all the time," writes theater visionary Peter Brook. "As a tramp, as a peasant, as a woman, as a hobo, as a business man, as a movie star, as a clown, even as a marionette. It's inexhaustible, limitless. Every decade offers us a new interpretation."
Take the past decade, for example, during which there has been a veritable parade of distinctive Danish princes across the English-speaking stage: In London, there was the sensitive Daniel Day Lewis at the Royal National Theatre (1989); the dark and dazzling Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida (1995); the nightshirted Mark Rylance at the Globe (2000); in New York, the erudite Kevin Kline (1990) and the stalwart Liev Schreiber (1999), both at the New York Shakespeare Festival. On film, there was the intense Mel Gibson (1990) and the charismatic Kenneth Branagh (1996). To name only a select few.
But there is something special about the recent "rash of Hamlets," as acclaimed British actor Simon Russell Beale calls the three princes in this, the "true millennium" year. Something arresting. He's referring to Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet, with Adrian Lester, now playing at Brook's celebrated Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris but due to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. He's also referring to his own Hamlet, directed by John Caird, currently at the Royal National Theatre in London but also set to sail to the United States this spring. And then there is the film Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, recently playing on both London and American screens. Three startling productions, that provide us with the rare opportunity to rediscover the play and the prince anew. And each one accomplishes this in a markedly different way.
"It is only by forgetting Shakespeare that we can begin to find him," writes Brook, theater director and theorist. Brook is a master at making us forget the classics and experience them anew. He's been reimagining them his entire career, with his innovative A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, as well as with the operas Pelléas et Mélisande, Carmen and Don Giovanni. In the case of Hamlet, it's a play he's been exploring for almost half a century, beginning with his traditional rendering in 1953 with Paul Scofield; next, with a deconstructed "Theater of Cruelty" version during the sixties in collaboration with Charles Marowitz; and decades later, in 1995, with Qui est là? ("Who is there?"), a theater étude, named after the opening line of Hamlet, at his International Center for Theatrical Creation in Paris. Brook explored how the play might have been approached by a number of noted theater theorists, including Stanislavsky, Brecht, Meierhold, Artaud and Gordon Craig. "It was really about the mystery of the theater, and where theater comes from," explains Bruce Myers, one of the permanent members of Brook's multinational troupe.
From this journey, Brook arrives today at The Tragedy of Hamlet, the name he gives his challenging new chamber play. (It's performed in English to preserve the poetry, as Brook explains in recent interviews.) Still, if you've cut your theatrical teeth on the traditional Hamlet, you too will be wondering "Who's there?" along with Horatio, who now speaks the opening line of Brook's boldly deconstructed version. The regular retinue of more than twenty-five characters in the court of Elsinore has been radically reduced by Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, to thirteen, played by a tight troupe of eight actors. Gone are Fortinbras, Marcellus, Osric, among others; gone, the opening sentinels' scene; gone, the salutatory Claudius/Gertrude scene; gone, Laertes's leave-taking scene with Polonius's famous fatherly advice (Laertes appears, eventually, to exact his revenge, but almost at the play's end); gone, "The Murder of Gonzago" (in its place is a scene in ancient Greek). And there's not only deconstruction but also reconfiguration.
Where is "To be or not to be"?! (I panicked, but it turns up later in this revised text.) Act V closes with a speech from Act I: "But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad..." And the very last words of the play reprise the first: "Who's there?", articulated again by Horatio as the corpses strewn across the stage slowly rise to their feet and face us. Under Brook's direction, this Hamlet, now playing at two hours twenty in contrast to the traditional four, cuts straight to the chase. So pared, so spare, so severe it is, that at first you'll think you're watching Ibsen or Albee. Yet, halfway through, it happens magically, just as Brook intends it to. You're seeing the play. You're rediscovering Hamlet anew.
So "though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Brook's method, of course. All the familiar features are there--the essentially empty stage (save only a floor covering, with a few brightly colored cushions and a table or two), designed by Chloé Obolensky, an exposed, crumbling theater wall, a familiar instrument stand (Toshi Tsuchitori stands off to the side, a range of primitive instruments at his fingertips). No props, save a pair of skulls and a bamboo pole. Bare, spare, elemental, the Brook theatrical vocabulary. "The joy of creating from very little," as Bruce Myers puts it. The result? A pure, clear, crystalline new play, The Tragedy of Hamlet.
"We pared it down for the French audiences, for clarity's sake. So that they'd understand it," says Myers, who doubles deftly as Polonius and the gravedigger. "We went straight to the heart of the play." At that heart, of course, is Hamlet himself, and as portrayed by the charismatic young British actor Adrian Lester, he's as vibrant as the orange-colored carpet beneath his swift, slippered feet, upon which he commands center stage. Dressed in black pull-ons and tunic, the lithe, dreadlocked Lester is a supple Hamlet, dazzling in his range from philosophical to physical, from preppy to pantheresque, from petulant to powerful, from witty to weepy to warrior-like. "A notion of character deadens character," said Lester in an interview about the rehearsal process. "So I live in the moment." And it shows. He's poetry in motion, morphing from one body image to another, now mincing in gait and words, now crouching, snarling, feigning madness to Polonius & Co. And no matter what his stance, what his guise, Lester's is the rare Hamlet who is, above all, in control. Of himself and of the play.
Brook's celebrated company of English, Caribbean, Indian and Asian actors clearly underscores the universality of this theatrical event, most notably Jeffrey Kissoon, who doubles as a stately Claudius and Ghost, Natasha Parry as a dignified Gertrude, and Shantala Shivalingappa as a delicate Ophelia. Ultimately, with its multi-national cast, its minimal mise en scène and text, and its metatheatrical stylistics, Brook's could just as soon be called The Ritual of Hamlet--reimagining a myth, restating it, celebrating the ceremony of theater and its power to move, enlighten, startle us from our complacent conceptions.
Lester's is not the only Hamlet to take the stage in this season of revelations. Across the channel, at London's Royal National Theatre, the versatile, award-winning actor Simon Russell Beale has defied casting conventions and claimed the prince for his own. Short and stocky, Beale was acclaimed for his recent Iago as well as for other character roles at the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The readiness is all" for his startling interpretation, which defies the tradition of sleeker, self-obsessed Hamlets in decades past. "'Am I capable of doing it?!' I asked myself," he told me in an interview. "Can I inhabit him?" His recent Evening Standard Award for Best Actor is the answer. "It was a big surprise for me," Beale said, of the role. "He's a sweet prince."
In contrast to the somberness of Tim Hatley's severe steel setting ("Denmark's a prison," and that's what's on the deep, dark Lyttelton stage, dimly lit by church chandeliers and scored by solemn sacred music), Beale's luminous, human Hamlet is a beacon of light. Playing against the grim world he's given, he's radiant with intelligence, clarity, wit and charm. And more: He's gentle, warm, magnanimous, affectionate, playful, light on his stockinged feet (he fairly leaps with joy when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear). Sensitive, sincere, vulnerable, too. "Hamlet's greatest strength is his sense of humor and irony," Beale continues. "And his sense that he isn't competent, that he can't do it [meaning, take revenge]." This Hamlet is full of surprises: His "get thee to a nunnery" to Ophelia is articulated with tenderness and care; he spends the entire closet scene consoling Gertrude instead of assaulting her, as it is traditionally played. Humane, compassionate, real. A rare, lovable prince, indeed.
Beale is supported by a distinguished RNT cast, featuring a compassionate Gertrude in Sara Kestelman and Denis Quilley, who doubles as a rambunctious Polonius and a delightful gravedigger. Under John Caird's astute direction, there is a rare and heart-stopping moment when both his parents (mother and ghost-father) flank Hamlet, a hand caressing each cheek, and you see straight into the heart of this family tragedy.
And still, there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in (our) philosophy. Michael Almereyda's ingenious film adaptation shows us the infinite possibilities for future Hamlets, still maintaining (though again reducing) the poetry while setting it in a contemporary forest of steel and glass on Park Avenue. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Corporation, and Ethan Hawke, the son of the slain CEO, is called home from college to set it right. Hawke's hip Hamlet, in ski cap and shades, sees his world through a digicam. As he wanders through the Blockbuster Video's action aisles, taping his own "to be or not to be," we catch a vivid glimpse, in his lens, of millennial man hopelessly alienated by technology and a menacing, monolithic corporate culture. The all-star cast is hip, too, with Kyle MacLachlan as a cunning Claudius and Diane Venora as a stunning Gertrude, driving around town in a black stretch limo (Venora once played Hamlet herself at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1980s). Bill Murray's Polonius is droll, Liev Schreiber's Laertes is affecting, Sam Shepard's ghost is beguiling and the ubiquitous Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, drowns sensationally in the Guggenheim Museum pool. It's a slick, spectacular Hamlet, with a proud, vulnerable pop-culture prince at its epicenter.
Comparisons? Similarities are more illuminating. Both stage versions eliminate Fortinbras completely, forsaking the political for the metaphysical world of Hamlet (the film cleverly announces Fortinbras's arrival on CNN). Neither the plays nor the film adopts the Oedipal interpretation so popular in the past century. Above all, none of these three millennial Hamlets is mad. Lester may be unpredictable; Beale may be ironic; Hawke may be angry. But they are all clearheaded, charismatic, capable of action. Hampered by grief, perhaps. Despair. Frustration. But not by inertia. "I want to be sane," declares Beale. "I want to die standing up." A stunning similarity to Adrian Lester's Hamlet, who sinks slowly to his knees but never fully drops, and dies seated, erect. A choice both stage actors mention with pride. "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!"
At the end of our interview, Russell Beale remarked with pleasure that the actor Paul Rhys had just been to see his performance; so have Michael Bennington and Ralph Fiennes. "There's a community of Hamlets," he smiled. New ones will join this community, along with Hamlets of the past (Gielgud, Guinness, Olivier, Burton, David Warner, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi). For, as Brook explains, "we are in front of something which we cannot ever finally understand." The magnificent mystery of Hamlet. And yet, says Brook, "we can always rediscover this play, make it live again, embark anew to seek out its truth."
Meanwhile, Beale's Hamlet is to tour Boston, Phoenix and Minneapolis this spring while Brook/Lester's arrives at BAM. Angela Winkler's Hamlet (from Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus) tours Europe. Sam West's begins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford this summer. And so on. "Who's there?"
You've got to understand what Sam Shepard meant to us.
There are those who know Shepard as a movie star and those who discovered him, earlier on, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child; but for those of us who first watched his plays in tiny studio theaters above a bar or in converted churches when there was still a counterculture, he was our playwright.
Shepard's plays were like no others--fresh, hip, antiheroic, free from the tired old psychology of Tennessee Williams and the Actors Studio. By no means political, they nevertheless made us aware of the myths that shaped our behavior as Americans. And if you knew where playwriting had been, with all those precious attempts to repoeticize the drama, and knew what was happening with psychedelics--people beginning to listen to those half-heard perceptions passing through their heads--you knew he had created an inevitably right form of drama.
He also meant a lot to people in the Bay Area, where, in the waning days of the counterculture, he settled for the better part of a decade. That was about the same amount of time Eugene O'Neill lived here, and like O'Neill, Shepard wrote many of his best plays here. He's been quoted as saying his years as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he premiered Angel City, Buried Child, Fool for Love and True West, were "the most productive time of my theater life."
But then, having given by his presence a certain validation to regional theater in the forever insecure "world class" city of San Francisco, he pulled up stakes and went to work as an actor in Hollywood movies. This at about the same time he was criticizing the hell out of the corruption of the creative process in La-La Land, in True West. And not only did he abandon our ever so artistically pure Bay Area for Hollywood, but he ended up making a long line of godawful movies, like Dash and Lilly, Purgatory and Baby Boom, pictures you wouldn't have thought a man of his literary sophistication and discrimination would touch.
In the past decade, Shepard seems to have returned to theater, though these have largely been years of successful revivals and very mixed and often not very warm responses to his recent work. The result is a lingering fear that Shepard, once the Wunderkind of American drama, has treated his tremendous gift far too carelessly.
Which brings us to The Late Henry Moss, the first premiere of a Shepard play by the Magic Theatre in seventeen years (at Theatre on the Square in San Francisco). The very best playwright of his generation was able to interest Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in the play--two of the very best actors in America, actors who time and time again have shown seriousness in their choice of material. That heightened expectations of the old exhilaration: a return of the real Sam Shepard, the poet, sure-footed, bringing you face to face with perceptions only half-acknowledged. And not only might Shepard be back at the top of his form, but this was an older and, one hoped, more deeply seeing Shepard, writing about the ultimate subject, death.
Shepard had left the Bay Area saying he was "no longer young," and now here we were so much further along. (Seventeen years; is it possible?) The golden boy is 57 and has lost both his mother and the father who was the source of so much of the anger and unhappiness in his plays. As he says at the end of Cruising Paradise, his 1996 collection of tales containing versions of both those deaths, "Everything was in place."
In The Late Henry Moss, the father's death is a mystery. One son, Ray (Sean Penn), seeks the truth about it and about his father and the family's past. The other, Earl (Nick Nolte), his opposite, seeks to hide the truth from himself and others. But from a cab driver (Woody Harrelson) and a concerned neighbor, Esteban (the delightful Cheech Marin), and in flashbacks, we discover that the father (James Gammon) went on a drunken fishing trip with a mysterious Native American woman (a very strong Sheila Tousey). Psychically tougher and more powerfully vital than any man in the play, she constantly throws it in the old man's face that he is dead in life. Ultimately she helps him really die. As she does, we discover Earl's part in that evening and his earlier act of betrayal when the family broke apart.
As the brothers, Nolte and Penn do what they do. Nolte drags on a cigarette, the tip just emerging from his fist, knocks down a shot, passes a hand through his hair and plays ravaged, weighed-down inner suffering with great naturalness. Equally real for the most part, Penn is intense, like a cat about to spring, and is ace, as you might expect, with Shepard's insolent threats and threatening silences. Both know to goose the energy with dynamic gestures, but both can also be a little small at times, as if they're expecting a camera to magnify the drama of facial nuances.
Unlike Woody Harrelson, who turns in a hugely inventive performance as the cab driver, finding fifty different ways to physicalize essentially the same action, what Nolte and Penn do ultimately begins to seem like more of the same. But here I think the problem is the writing, and with great disappointment I report that Shepard hasn't returned to his former powers with this play. He simply hasn't given Penn and Nolte sufficient material to work with. There's not a whole lot to the characters, and their relationship lacks the continuously rich evolution of True West. I suspect this underwriting is part of what makes the ending seem inflated and overwrought. The fact that what is revealed about the family's past isn't all that compelling doesn't help.
There are of course many joyously perverse, off-the-wall Shepard lines like "Every death has to be reported these days--unless you kill someone" and (to bumbling funeral attendants) "That's my father you just dropped." His typically audacious choices as writer and director are also very much in evidence, as when he leaves a giant, unsettling, unfurnished empty space in the set, stage right, or when Sheila Tousey picks Marin up and swings him back and forth like a doll, or when Harrelson leaps on top of a refrigerator, a meat cleaver in hand for protection.
Where most directors move actors about the stage to articulate relationships and tell the story of the play and create an overall mood with lights and textures, it's as though Shepard does all that and, with the help of designers Andy Stacklin (set), Anne Militello (lights) and Christine Dougherty (costumes), also creates pictures on stage that have the strange beauty of Edward Hopper's--only with a palette more like Wayne Thiebaud's. Shepard also moves into a more overt and equally beautiful surrealism, as when Tousey's head and arms appear otherwise disembodied over the edge of a bathtub.
In fact, Shepard seems to be trying to move into new territory. If Buried Child was Shepard's Ibsen play (and Ibsen parody) and Fool for Love his Strindberg, The Late Henry Moss may be a kind of Long Day's Journey Into Night, an attempt at closure with his father and his death.
The way he manages that attempt shows Shepard still of a countercultural bent, embracing the counterculture's characteristic antidote, inclusion of the Other. The setting is no longer a desert wasteland but the Southwest, the Latin/Native American West, New Mexico, where Shepard first moved when he left the Bay Area, and where a brooding primitivism makes you feel you've crossed into a foreign country.
After years of delineating the underside of macho, in Henry Moss Shepard brings onto his stage a Native woman, sensuous, with a mythic dimension and definitely Other. She brings with her clear vision, reverence for the dead, ritual, dance and a nonstereotypical way of being female. And it is she who--not maternally, but with great hardness--brings Henry to his death and closure to his suffering and macho failings.
Ultimately, however, this closure doesn't bring about a sense of reconciliation. The account of Shepard's father's funeral in Cruising Paradise is tender, full of pity and acceptance, and in it Shepard captures a very real sense of the grief that sneaks up unexpectedly (even when you harbor great anger toward the deceased). He chokes up reading the Bible over his father's grave and can't go on.
Henry Moss is a different work, and there's no reason Shepard should re-create the same emotional landscape, but given the subject matter there's a surprising lack of those feelings. Esteban is upset by Henry's death; Ray stands mutely by the corpse for a moment. In the final analysis, though, Shepard is extremely hard on his characters, father and sons. You might say, unforgiving. The failings and betrayals are a barrier he can't seem to get past. And in the end, the play never deals with the grief and pity that must be dealt with if reconciliation is to come from an encounter with the dead.
"I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided," said Sam Shepard, explaining his motivation for writing True West. "It's a real thing, double nature.
It's 9:45 Tuesday night, and the house lights have just come on after the final scene of Wit--the surprise Off Broadway hit about a terminally ill English professor and her experience as a