Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Big D Theatre

In the last weeks, I have seen several productions around the Big D area. They demonstrated a real mix of production choices, respect/disrespect for original texts, and the annoying notion of "relevance" for audiences.

First, we produced OUR TOWN, which is arguably one of the top five plays in American theatre, worthy of being in the top 25 plays of the 20th century. All too often it is played as a sentimental/Hallmark play using "realism" as its defining production style--ugh. Wilder would (and probably does) spin in his grave. Our production, directed by one of my colleagues, was pretty dead-on in its production, eliminating the inserted "realism" of high school versions and utilizing Wilder's stylistic choices. The ensemble casting was, for the most part, strong, and Stage Manager was even one of our faculty colleagues.

My only confusion was the choice to "stage" the play as a rehearsal, or to at least play the first act as a rehearsal, moving slowly by the third act to a more conventional "staged" play. This had been done in the recent NYC production (as I understand it) as a way into Wilder's unconventional notions for the play, where he mediates between conventional performance events of the 1930s and the anti-realistic wave coming in from Europe. In the least effective choice, this meant leaving the lights up during the entire first act and trading recorded sound effects for live sounds made, distractingly, by actors in the aisles. The most effective choices were to keep the actors to miming the actions of the script (although it was clear the young actresses had too often not researched stringing beans or lighting early 20th-century stoves) and to minimize stage pieces.

All in all, it was an effective and moving night of theatre, well directed and acted. One of the best I've seen on my divisional stages for a while.

By contrast, I also saw The Big Theatre's production of HENRY IV, PARTS I & II in one of the final performances. The biggest problems here were script cutting and directing, which in turn influenced the acting. The set and costumes, too, were unfortunate.

Both plays were jammed into 2 hours and 40 minutes: Part I was the first 2 hours, and Part II was chopped into the final 40 minutes. Why? The re-cutting emphasized the story of Hal and Falstaff, virtually ignored Hotspur (I know: how can that be?), and included 'way too much swordplay. It also inserted "music" into the show: a Loudon Wainwright tune (replacing a key monologue) and Blake's C of E hymn "Jerusalem" as a cry to battle/God. Both were more than unfortunate choices, I think meant to make the play "relatable" or "relevant" to Big D spectators. Ugh. In my opinion, the result was a jangling cacophony of badly inserted materials. The Wainwright song was, simply put, embarrassing, sung in a musical comedy style that undercut Hal's character.

There was a lot of scenes in the drunken pals/pub revelry style, allowing for the comedy. Deftly played, by the way by a veteran character actor doing an interesting take on Falstaff. The Hal was not up to the task, however, and came across as hardly material for a future Henry V. Even Henry IV was reduced to a cameo role, and the complexity of the two plays and their internal story about fathers and sons, inheritance, character, and leadership was completely lost.

The costumes looked like bad rentals from a regional production of Robin Hood or King Arthur--badly fitted, overall. And the dirty faces of the actors meant I didn't even recognize one of our seniors! The scaffolding that surrounded the seating--where the bulk of the athletic swordplay went on--was jiggly and noisy with its imprecise fitting (and sounded dangerous, in fact!), distracting me from what went on onstage.

And the lights never went down (again!), so they were in my eyes, distracting, kept me from focusing, and kept me watching people's expressions across the way, in the balcony, etc.

Sigh. Is this the new thing, this "lights up" stuff? Most directors aren't good enough to get away with it--like here--so the end result is simply weak.

One strong production, one weak... better than usual, actually.

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