Adam Green, Maggie Lacey, and Naomi O'Connell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Adam Green, Maggie Lacey, and Naomi O’Connell in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at the McCarter Theatre Center through May 4.  – Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What was good got much, much better.  THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, the second of the two FIGARO PLAYS on offer at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton makes up and then some for any shortcomings found in the first.  This exuberant production is high-energy and infectious from the very beginning, and it continues to dazzle through its three-plus hours that fly by all too quickly.

Where Adam Green’s Figaro of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE seemed rather lackluster and introspective, here, he’s a dynamo who whirrs even when standing still.  He’s always thinking, even when he’s incorrect, and the result is like watching a tightly wound spring that may explode at any second, and he maintains this tension throughout the entire evening and then overcome a huge monologue Beaumarchais has given him near the very end of the play which he does with ease.

Indeed, the entire cast is to be commended in superlatives as they whisk the audience along in this delightful melee.

Once again, if you’re a fan of the opera, you’ll know the story.  Figaro (Green) is back in the employ of Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe) who is now married to his quest of the first play, Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), and Figaro is about to be married to his love (Suzanne) Maggie Lacey.  The only problem is that the Count is infatuated with Suzanne and wants to reestablish a custom he previously abolished, droit de seigneur or the right of the master that allows him to bed a servant’s wife on her wedding night.   Neither Figaro, Suzanne, nor Rosine is happy about this, but Almaviva seems to have decided that he has to do it although he is not truly happy about it himself.  He has once again enlisted the aid of Bazile (Cameron Folmer) to act as his go-between, but Bazile has his mind on other issues.

The complications in this play are many, and they add a host of new and hilarious complications.  Since Almaviva wants Suzanne as his mistress, he is pleased that Marceline (Jeanne Paulsen) who is Dr. Bartolo’s (Derek Smith) housekeeper has a promissory note that states that Figaro must marry her.  Almaviva hopes to push this issue in court, but he is somewhat obstructed by Bazile who is in love with Marceline.

Further complications come from one of Almaviva’s pages Cherubin (Magan Wiles) who is also the godson of Rosine.  Cherubin is in love with anything wearing a dress, and he has fallen from favor with the Count because he has been found canoodling with the shepherdess Fanchette (Betsy Hogg) who is also a target of the Count’s affections.  Cherubin is also in love with Rosine and even states that he thinks making love to Marceline would be an excellent adventure.  How all of these characters try to get the better of each other through trickery and disguises and the secrets one discovers along the way makes this one wonderful roller-coaster ride.

The focus has shifted from Rosine and Almaviva as the lovers to Figaro and Suzanne who are now those in trouble and needing help, and Lacey’s Suzanne is every bit a match for Figaro’s wiles.  Lacey is simply superb.  She is charming and has a presence that draws the audience to her.  When she is on stage with O’Connell who delivers another stellar performance, it is bliss.   Magan Wiles’ Cherubin is a glorious study of pained adolescence.  She captures the changeability of youth perfectly and is at once pitiable and annoying (in a good way).

Neal Bledsoe seems much more at home in this Almaviva skin.  His man of action who seems torn between two minds is a much more positive presence on the stage.  The man is still a major heel, but he’s a heel one can understand and possibly find sympathy for.  Derek Smith is, once again, wonderful.  I don’t need to add any more to that.  I’ll happily go to see him in anything if these two plays are any indication of his abilities.

The plot twists are numerous and the evening speeds by all too quickly.  It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a night in the theatre like this.

Charles Corcoran’s sets are more pleasing to the eye here.  Granted, there are more scenes and locations in this play than there were in the first, but here, the dull walls are given variety by windows allowing more light and patches of blue to show through.  There is a lighter, brighter feel to these settings.  Joan Arhelger’s lights offer more variety here as well and are generally better suited to the lightness of the script.  Only in the night scene near the end do they go through some tortured changes and leave most of the cast in half-light and shadow.

There is a wonderful variety in the costumes by Camille Assaf here; no longer is everything dull.  Even though were still mostly in a palate of earth-tones, there are some rich hues that offer some relief from the brown/gray of the sets.  Assaf’s designs are once again nicely realized, and this wider and brighter palate server them well.

Stephen Wadsworth’s adaptation and direction are once again delightful as well.  The pace is perfect with the audience being allowed to pause and reflect when necessary and pushing through the comedic moments, heaping them on one another to glorious effect.

I am truly sorry for gushing, but this production so richly deserves it.

Another aspect of this script that I found particularly interesting was its timelessness and appropriateness for today.  Marceline, who had little to do in the first play but who is pivotal in this one, delivers a telling monologue about the place of women in society.  She bemoans the fact that women are subjected to a society that does not fully value them, that looks on them as commodities who are worth less than men.  I found this to be highly topical concerning the statements currently being made by some politicians concerning equal pay and opportunities for women today.  She also rails against her being even more powerless because she has no money and is at the mercy of the rich who own and control most of society.  This too is all too poignant when compared to the world some 250 years later.

It must be noted that Jeanne Paulsen is brilliant as Marceline.  Her monologue is delivered honestly and directly, and one can feel her pain as she explains her plight.  Paulsen is solid throughout the night, but she truly shines here.

I wanted to brilliantly weave some of Wadsworth’s translated lines through this review, but I thought it might be more fun to let them live on their own.  That way, those of you who go to see this show, and you should go to see this show – both shows, would also have the joy to see from whence they come.

Here are a few of my favorites  (I’m sorry if any are incorrect.  I was writing as fast as I could, and it was dark, after all.):

“What mortal abandoned by heaven and womankind would want you?”

“If I could get her without a struggle, I’d want her even less.”

“I won’t speak to my character, but I’m definitely better than my reputation.”

“Of course I tell him everything except what I don’t tell him.”

“I should have known that you were my mother when I started borrowing money from you.”

“If you don’t stand up to them, you are utterly dependent to them.”

…And my favorite,

“The only good thing about a theatre is that you can take a nap in it.”

Like several other Wadsworth translations/adaptations, I am sure that there will be more chances to see THE FIGARO PLAYS as it is produced in other regional theatres, but if you are in the Princeton area, by all means try to see both of these plays.  Even though THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO is a more developed and complex story, the two together are a remarkable theatre-going package.  There is a reason the works of people like Beaumarchais survive.  There is a timelessness and a universality that reaches across decades, and they are just as fresh and alive each time they are performed.  Together at The McCarter Theatre Center, they are simply a joyous romp.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO continues in repertory with THE BARBER OF SEVILLE through May 4 in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place in Princeton, NJ 08540.  For information, call (609) 258-2787 or visit their website at http://www.mccarter.org.

 

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Eugene O’Neill’s STRANGE INTERLUDE is a rather difficult play to mount successfully, and the current Royal National Theatre production disappointingly falls far short of being successful. 

The play follows the lives of three men and the woman to whom they are inexplicably drawn for over forty years.  Nina Leeds is said to be a dynamic and beautiful woman which causes the first problem in this production.  Although Anne-Marie Duff is a solid performer, she has neither the beauty nor magnetism to understandably elicit such devotion.  Charles (Charley) Marsden (Charles Edwards) loved Nina from the time she was a young girl, and he buried that love in the care of his mother as Nina was in love with a young man named Gordon whom she elevates to hero status and bases all of her future relationships on her idealization of him after he is killed in World War I.

Charley is Nina’s confidant and stays with her even when she marries the somewhat naïve Sam Evans (Jason Watkins) who is inexplicably portrayed as a simple-minded fool here, but this is undoubtedly not the fault of Watkins as this smacks of the rather heavy-handed direction of Simon Godwin which is found throughout. Godwin either does not understand the script or has decided to simply throw an unsupportable concept at it which reduces the pathos and humanity of the characters into mild comedy.

The third man who comes under the spell of Nina is Doctor Edmund Darrell (Darren Pettie) whom she supposedly loves but over whom she chooses Sam to marry which makes little sense in this production when comparing a dashing doctor to a simpleton who has no set career at that point.   Nina also convinces Edmund to father the child she cannot otherwise have with Sam because she cannot have a child with Sam as she is warned by Sam’s mother that there is inherited insanity in the family.   She has the child whom she names Gordon, and Sam does become more confident, becoming a “go getter” who suddenly becomes a hugely successful businessman.

Both Charley, whose mother eventually dies, and Edmund remain extended family as Nina’s child grows up, loathing Edmond and never knowing him as his biological father.  Eventually, Sam dies, Edmund leaves having finally gotten over Nina, and young Gordon flies off to marry his love, a marriage which Nina did everything in her power to break as she seems to see her lost love Gordon in her son.

All that is left at the end of the play is the older, spent Nina whose machinations have come to nothing; she’s now facing a lonely life but is saved by Charley who is now an old, lonely man who has wasted his life waiting for her.  Charley is happy to finally have Nina, even though he is the default choice among her three swains.  It is incredibly sad that his life is sated by taking what has been left over.

As mentioned, Godwin’s direction is sadly misguided.  These characters are sad and deluded, but here, they are simply silly and willful with Sam emerging as the silliest.  Godwin has cheapened the sentiment and removed the drama. One prime example of this cheapened aspect is a scene between Nina and Sam’s mother (Geraldine Amos).   Mrs. Evans appears to be backwoods farming woman who should be milking a cow or digging potatoes for some reason.  This adds to the lower class appearance of Sam and makes Nina’s attraction to him seem even more ridiculous.  Most of the choices here make little to no sense.  I do not expect this from the National theatre.

The physical production is ridiculous as well.  “Designer” Soutra Gilmour has costumed the cast in often poorly tailored and/or fitting clothing which huge hems and poor stitching which can be seen from the second row of the stalls where I was sitting.  However weak the costuming,  Gilmour’s sets are truly bizarre and poorly designed.  In Nina’s father’s house, there is a stairwell outside of the door from the hall that is so close to the doorway that everyone must duck under it to get into the room.  There are also two tiers to the room which don’t even come close to being understandable.  Also, the set is on a turntable, so each section of the turntable makes it appear that the rooms are in a circular house as they are all pronounced wedges.

The weirdness continues to the New York house of Nina and Sam that has a bizarre cage-like structure in the middle of the set which contains a circular staircase.  It’s absurd.  Also, a boat set turns into a ramp for the final scene which looks like an unfinished boardwalk that is falling down and makes no sense as it is supposedly in the yard of Nina and Sam’s house.  The back wall also fits together poorly which just looks bad.

Like the direction, the physical production is not up to the standard of the RNT.  I have long loved productions there, but this truly looks like it’s a mediocre result of a year-end project of an inept or second-rate drama school.

The acting is variable.  There are three enjoyable performances that come from Patrick Drury who is on all too briefly as Nina’s father.  He is actually a believable human.  Emily Plumtree is charming as Madeline Arnold who  becomes Gordon’s wife.  She is actually animated and has tried to do something with her material.  Fortunately, Edwards is excellent as Charley.  He seems to understand the role and delivers a solid, fully rounded character and performance.    It is sad that he is one of the few characters in this play about whom one can care when one should care about all of them.

I wanted to like this production as I have never had the opportunity to see a professional production of STRANGE INTERLUDE before.  I think I may like this script best of all of O’Neill’s works as it doesn’t seem to be overly self-indulgent.  I just hope that this production isn’t a warning about what will now be happening at the RNT.  I do not know if Simon Godwin is a young or old director, but he seems to be a director who does not bother to fully understand the material, yet he has the confidence to believe he can do whatever he wants to it.  Because of this, STRANGE INTERLUDE at the RNT in London is a huge disappointment.  What a shame.

Review: THE HOW AND THE WHY

February 22, 2011

I wanted to post this review of THE HOW AND THE WHY after we saw it, but after reading it, I felt that it might cause people not to go see the play. New plays need audiences, especially during talkbacks and the like, so I decided to hold back on the posting. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and I am very late in getting it on the blog. In any event, these are my views of this new play and the recent McCarter Theatre production.

     Two women faced many unanswered challenges in Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center’s world premier production of Sarah Treem’s THE HOW AND THE WHY in their intimate Berlind Theatre which ran through February 13. The main difficulty facing this script is that there is more “how” than “why,” and the unanswered questions overwhelm the situation. It is not a bad play, and it offers a great deal of information and impetus for discussion; however, it simply does not offer the audience any kind of cohesive sense regarding why it happened.
     This two-hander featuring Mercedes Ruehl as Zelda and Bess Rous as Rachel Hardeman begins with the extremely uncomfortable first meeting of a mother and daughter twenty-eight years after the mother gave the daughter up for adoption. Rachel has become an evolutionary biologist like her mother and the man by whom she was impregnated – he never knew about Rachel. Coincidences multiply rapidly as the two women talk, and it is revealed that they both developed theories concerning menstruation in humans. Zelda’s theory, which came when she was twenty-seven, is based on an actual 1957 theory by George C. Williams called the Grandmother Hypothesis which outlines that women go through menopause in order to become caregivers in the community and ensure its continuation.
     Rachel’s theory in the play is based on the 1993 theory by Margie Profet which contends that menstruation is a woman’s body’s defense against “pathogens transported by sperm.” In other words, a woman cleanses herself against the onslaught of germs carried by sperm in order to survive. Shortly after Rachel and Zelda discuss this near the opening of the play, the first “why” question begins to form. Why, if Rachel’s theory deals with the concept that a woman’s body is repelling germs introduced by a man and is, in a sense, protecting itself from that man, does Rachel’s character sublimate herself to a man, her boyfriend Dean who is also an evolutionary biologist, and is willing to give him half of the credit for this discovery so that she can keep him?
     The insight that could have come from the discussion between these two women as to why the woman who developed the theory regarding nurturing gave up her child and never married and the woman who looks at menstruation as a defense against the invasion of men seems desperate to keep one would have been so much more interesting than some of what is discussed but never answered here. The psychology which would have given these two characters so many more shades of meaning is sadly never approached.
     Zelda gave up Rachel when Rachel was six days old. No reason was given. It is intimated by Rachel that Zelda put her career first, and, I suppose, that a lack of denial from Zelda is supposed to stand as affirmation. However, there is so much missing from this back story. Zelda was twenty-eight, unmarried, and because of complications with the birth, had to have a hysterectomy – which also seems coincidental – so she might not have felt that she could keep Rachel. She might have felt that she was not the right mother. The audience never knows. No, it is not necessary for all questions to be answered because life does not offer answers for everything, but it does offer answers for some things. Zelda knows why she gave up Rachel. Couldn’t the audience?
     Rachel appears in Zelda’s life a short while before a major conference is to occur at the college where Zelda teaches. In fact, Zelda is on the board of the conference to which Rachel applied but was not accepted. Rachel tells Zelda that she “called” the adoption agency and found out who Zelda was which seems highly unlikely, possible, but unlikely, and all of this occurred after Rachel was rejected from the conference. Did Rachel know who Zelda was and only now chose to find her for her own gain? Rachel is filled with anger towards the woman whom she says “gave her birth” but is not her mother, and their meetings are terse with Rachel being highly uncommunicative except about her theory. Also regarding Rachel’s theory, it was supposedly championed by a former student of Zelda’s who then attacks Rachel when she delivers her paper. Was it championed so that this third woman could also make a case for her theory which has something to do with menstruation in other animals such as chimpanzees?
     One last why, although there are several others, is why Zelda worked to get Rachel a conveniently vacant spot in the conference. Zelda seems neither happy nor upset with Rachel’s arrival. Could this, however, be Zelda’s way of punishing Rachel for ferreting her out after twenty-eight years? Zelda sees some possible problems within Rachel’s theory and briefly mentions them but does not stress Rachel’s need to address them. Rachel does not, of course, and she suffers from the attack as a result. Rachel loses Dean because Zelda tells her to deliver her theory alone, and Rachel believes she has been ridiculed by the conference attendees. She is demoralized, but Zelda does not seem to mind.
     Treem seems to be trying to use the biology the way Tom Stoppard has used math, science, and physics in plays such as ARCADIA and JUMPERS. They are similar here in that the biology seems to be the reason for this reconnection and all that follows. However, the characters are not realized deeply enough to be able to fully understand them. Even their basic motivations seem shrouded in too much mystery. It’s difficult to root for a character one doesn’t know or fully understand. Rachel just seems to be a miserable woman who never matured. Zelda is a true cipher who seems, at times, to enjoy manipulating Rachel only to offer caring advice. Which is it?
Rous does a creditable job with Rachel. She does look for levels and variety in the character which is mostly written to skulk around the stage in fits of pique. Rous does work to make her vulnerable and agreeable at times. On opening night, Ruehl seemed a bit unfocused and often had to struggle for lines, so it was difficult to tell what her motivations were. Perhaps those motivations and some of my whys were cleared up when Ruehl became more comfortable with the role. As it is, the pacing of the evening lurches as Ruehl works to retrieve a line. She does, however, have some excellent moments which seem to center around some of Treem’s more “Neil Simon-esque” lines.
     The star of the evening is the set by Daniel Ostling. The first act set of a university office, not unlike Princeton’s in feel, is extremely well detailed and beautifully realistic as is the second act “seedy bar” set that even includes cluttered tables and mismatched furniture.
     Is THE HOW AND THE WHY a bad play? No, definitely not. There are many positives in this evening that still make it interesting. It is, however, a play that needs development and focus. For some in the audience on opening night, it was a thought-provoking exercise. For others, it was “tedious” and “un-eventful.” I found it interesting and filled with promise which it doesn’t quite deliver – yet.