Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Thoughts about Spring Theatre in Washington, D.C.
After a lackluster fall, I was pleased to see several fine productions this past spring in Washington, which continues to be a first-rate town for interesting and provocative theatre. By far, the best three productions were Synetic's Romeo and Juliet, the Folger Macbeth, and The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Major Barbara.
Macbeth was a delight. Aaron Posner, who typically directs one show every season for the Folger, brought his usual flair for originality to the Scottish play. With the help of Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), he created the bloodiest Macbeth this side of Jacobean stagecraft. Banquo's ghost spews disgusting clots of blood; the three weird sisters drop glistening entrails into their cauldron; and Lady M. spontaneously bleeds from her hands during the sleepwalking scene, a sort of grotesquely hilarious stigmata. So covered in blood was the stage by the curtain call that actors were slipping all over the place. Peter Marks in his Washington Post review called the production a "popcorn Macbeth, surely as good a description as any. There were lots of smart touches too, not just magic tricks and buckets of blood. Kate Eastwood Norris, one of my favorite Washington actresses, was by far the sexiest Lady M. I've ever seen, and she used her considerable wiles to seduce Macbeth into murdering Duncan. Too often Lady Macbeth is done as a steely, cold-hearted bitch who dominates and ridicules her husband into submission. I've always found it hard to square Macbeth-the-warrior with Macbeth-the-henpecked. Norris' interpretation made sense of Macbeth's rapid capitulation: their body language conveyed the hot intensity of their relationship, and one could understand entirely why this powerful warrior would do anything, including murder, for this undulating babe. Ian Merrill Peakes did a fine job with Macbeth, displaying pathos and regret that was genuinely heartfelt, not simply recited.
I liked The Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Major Barbara just as well, but for different reasons. First, I was relieved to see a STC show that I really liked for a change; second, I loved how Ethan McSweeny's direction made me rethink the script and appreciate how Shaw's penchant for Nietzsche drives the characters and the script. Vivienne Benesch burned, wild-eyed and impassioned, with Dionysian fevor. Truly she is the counterpart to Adolphus Cusin's Apollonian professor of Greek; and their marriage signifies the happy union of opposing but complementary philosophies, both necessary to a balanced life. Too often actresses play Barbara with a reserved hauteur, making her emotional abandonment of the Salvation Army at the end of Act 2 as hard to fathom as her sudden conversion to her father's war-mongering credo at the end of the play.
Although McSweeny's was by far the most intellectual Barbara I've seen, it was also the most enjoyable, with lots of lovely physical business and superb comic timing. The opening scene between the termagant Lady Britomart and her feckless son Stephen featured an especially superb piece of stage business, with a pillow cushion functioning metonymically for the battle of wills between the generations. The set was gorgeous and put to good use by McSweeney and his actors; happily, he avoided the fussiness of many contemporary directors: give them a revolve and they use it ad nauseum! All the performances sparkled, and the actors did justice to Shaw's quicksilver dialogue. The actor playing Stephen overdid his performance a bit, the one flaw in an otherwise superlative production.
As good as these shows were, they simply could not compete with Synetic's Romeo and Juliet. For good reason, this brilliant, truly innovative company blew everyone else out of the water this year at the Helen Hayes Awards. Another entry in their series of "silent" adaptations of Shakespeare, this dance- and movement-based version boiled down the story to 55 minutes of intense, explosive kinesis. Tired as I am of the play, I loved every moment of Synetic's version. Paata Tsikurishvili, the brilliant Georgian artistic director, went for an especially bleak interpretation, surrounding his young lovers with cogs and wheels (largely formed by bodies) as they are ground up by the blood feud between the families. The unremitting electronic score additionally propelled the action forward, making for an exhilarating, compressed dramatic action that sped toward its catastrophic conclusion. I really can't get enough of this talented company, and their achievements are all the more impressive given how they started from scratch a few years ago. I'm pleased to see they're finally getting some decent funding.