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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derek_smith_and_naomi_oconnell__photo_by_t._charles_erickson

Derek Smith as Bartolo and Naomi O’Connell as Rosine in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at the McCarter Theatre Center – photo by T. Charles Erickson

 

Sometimes, while watching a play one has never seen before, it may seem wonderfully familiar.  The story may be different, but there is that strange feeling that these characters come from somewhere else.  In retrospect, this is not a bad thing; it just means that a viewer has a history with the theatre on which to base his or her experience.

This was the case during THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, the first of THE FIGARO PLAYS being presented in repertory at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ through May 4.  The second, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, will be forthcoming.  Stephen Wadsworth, who translated, adapted, and directed these pieces, is no stranger to McCarter audiences as he delivered delightful productions of forgotten plays by Marivaux and Goldoni here in the 1990s.  This time, it’s the works of Pierre Beaumarchais which are far better known in their operatic forms.  Beaumarchais was a French watchmaker who elevated the erratic timepieces of the day to reliable works of art (even fashioning the first watch set into a ring) and hoped for a political post in Spain.  When that did not come, he began writing plays, and they were very popular plays at that.

If you are familiar with the opera, then you know the story.  The wily Figaro (Adam Green) helps his former master, Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe) win the woman he has followed throughout Europe, Rosine (Naomi O’Connell).  To do that, Figaro confounds Rosine’s guardian Bartolo (Derek Smith) and his toady Don Bazile (Cameron Folmer).  Bartolo is planning to marry the much younger Rosine in order to secure her fortune for himself.

Besides the storyline, the familiar part of this comes with the characters.  Beaumarchais was writing at a transitional time in the mid-eighteenth century after the Restoration and Classical periods and before the Romantic, but he still looked to theatre history for the characters that people these scripts.  The plays of this time seem to rely heavily on satire and social commentary, and Beaumarchais used characters that come directly from the stock characters of the commedia del’arte of the sixteenth century to act out his story.

The agile wit, Arlecchino, is Figaro.  Here, the Count and Rosine are characters that were known by many names but came under the heading of Inamorato, the young people in love who always seem to have the problem that needs to be fixed.  Bartolo is the Venetian merchant Pantalone who is rich, mean, and miserly.  Rounding out the main cast is Bazile whose counterpart would be Il Dottore (the doctor) who is a learned man who is full of himself and easily swayed from his purpose by money.  They’re all there plus a few more, and it makes it very easy to follow their exploits because they are so familiar.

Although Adam Green seemed a bit low on energy and flair for Figaro on opening night, he still turned in a serviceable job.  Because of the type of character he plays, one expects a far more robust performance.  Not overly loud and large, but Figaro is a schemer who is always thinking.  Here, he is affable but too laid back to really get involved.  He is a complainer, not a doer.

Neal Bledsoe had a slow start on opening night, but he made up for it as the play progressed.   His Count Almaviva is dashing and a bit daunted which gives audiences a character for whom they should be rooting which is necessary.  This dynamic will shift in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO.

My two favorite performances of the evening were delivered by Naomi O’Connell as the charming Rosine whose nicely delineated moments of happiness, despair, and confusion were delightful to watch and Derek Smith’s Bartolo.  Bartolo always seems to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and his wonderfully stylized mannerisms and delivery support that characterization perfectly.  Smith’s Bartolo is an amiable curmudgeon who delights audiences with his complaints like “If people didn’t drop things, no one would be talking about gravity.”  During the evening, I often found myself wishing that Green had channeled some of Smith’s energies.

The physical production for this play is quite nice although the set by Charles Corcoran is rather monochromatic and drably painted.  Regardless of the validity of the color choices, from the audience, it gives little visual variety and is a bit somber.  The colors wash out under the theatre-lighting to a flat beige and gray.  The two-tiered design itself is impressive, and it gives the characters ample playing room.

Camille Assaf’s costumes are nicely detailed and appropriate, and Joan Arhelger’s lighting is serviceable but offers no special notes.  Everything was just nicely designed; it just seems as though there was a conscious effort to underplay the result which gives the production no sparkle.  I’m not saying that there should be bright colors and lights, just that there should be some focal points to ease the flatness of the visual, some special visuals to go with some special moments being offered on stage.

Wadsworth has given audiences another gem in this translation/adaptation.  These characters have survived for over two hundred years because they are special, and with lines that read, “Public service and private gain at the same time – it’s morally unimpeachable,” one can see why.  Their essence lives on.  Wadsworth’s direction is generally well paced after a slow opening, and he allows the characters time to grow and mature throughout the production.  He obviously trusts the material and allows things to happen rather than forcing them on his audiences which is refreshing.

My quibbles with the production and a few of the performances are just that: quibbles.  They are minor in the grand scheme of the evening, and this production, on the whole, is wonderful.  THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at the McCarter Theatre is a well presented, silly bit of charming entertainment, and it is a fabulous reminder of how enjoyable a well-crafted play can be.

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE continues in repertory with THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO 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.

Adam Green, Derek Smith, and Neal Bledsoe

Adam Green, Derek Smith, and Neal Bledsoe in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.  – photo by T. Charles Erickson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a postscript.  The world premier run of the show has ended, but life got in the way of me writing about it before.  Perhaps it is better this way.

Let me start with this statement:  The best part of the McCarter Theatre Company’s production of Marina Carr’s PHAEDRA BACKWARDS is the poster.  The rest was rather flawed and confusing.

Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae and sister to Airadne.  The myth contends that Minos upset Poseidon, so he enflamed Pasiphae with lust for a white bull with which she mated, giving birth to the Minotaur.  Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne whom he married, but she died (in various ways according to various versions of the myth), and he married Phaedra only to live unhappily ever after.

Phaedra fell in love with Theseus’ son by a previous marriage, Hippolytus, who rejected her, and she is the ultimate cause of Hippolytus’ death by being dragged by his horses or attacked by a Kraken or a bull or a wave or a strong wind and drowned.  You choose.

That’s the back story.  It is good to know the backstory of the events in this play since it jumps around chronologically with characters often inhabiting the same space in different times and at different ages for no viable reason.  That is one of the main problems with this script.  Why was it written?

As staged, this script resembles a “white-trash” version of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? without any of the charm of the Albee original.  Phaedra swills wine throughout and brays at anyone who comes near her.   Indeed, Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Phaedra runs the emotional range from angst to angst.  Neither script, approach, nor direction gave her any depth of character.

At one point, Theseus asks: “What’s the point of this?” which is a rather loaded question since I had been wondering that for some time.  Besides changing the story or not giving enough information to help make certain aspects of the story make sense (such as Pasiphae’s reasons for lusting after the white bull), nothing new is developed.  Here, these descendants of gods and heroes are reduced to malicious whiners, and the shifts in time and place tend to be rather confusing.

Equally confusing was a scene where Minos, Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Minotaur come back from Hades, string Phaedra up on a chain, and do something to her.  I believe they were supposed to be cutting parts of her off to eat, but I cannot swear to that fact.  It made no sense.  Why would they hate her?  Ariadne died before Phaedra married Theseus; Phaedra did not take her away.  It was Ariadne who helped Theseus kill Minotaur (who, in this version, was a very friendly little calf-child), but he is not angry with Ariadne, and… Never mind.  It just made no sense.  If the audience was supposed to believe that this was Phaedra tormenting herself, it missed the mark.

Oh, I must admit; I did not go to the pre-show lecture which explained to any willing audience member what to look for in the show.  I’m sorry; I come from a rather diverse theatrical background.  If I must be told what a show means or what to look for so that I can understand it, there is something definitely wrong with the show.  I know the myths surrounding these people well, and things just did not add up.

Since this is an afterthought, I won’t go into much further detail.   Let it simply be said that the script and production were extremely disappointing.  The performances were variable with most of the characters seemingly walking through their parts.  Some, like Julio Monge as the Minotaur, were simply miscast and were not helped by poor costuming and ludicrous staging.

Once again, I was left with a resounding “Why?” echoing through my head.  Why would someone do this if there was not going to be an attempt to in someway enhance or show greater depth to this story?  This is especially true when one looks at Racine’s version of this myth.  For sheer theatricality and emotion, it cannot be beaten.

It is sad when the dialogue in a script gives critics the perfect fodder to use against it.  Some of my favorites in this included:

“You’d watch anything if it was lit properly.”

“It’ll all look better in the morning.”

“I am not equipped for this; leave my terrace.”

Minos asks: “Am I in the right place?”

Enough!  Director John Doyle needs to stop his intrusive, gimmicky destruction of good material.  Currently, his production of Ten Cents a Dance is on stage at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. His conceit is that performers who play a variety of instruments while performing on stage in some way enhance the performance.  How? The instruments and the necessity to pick-up, carry, play, and put them down again, generally has nothing to do with the material.  To many, this intrusion of instruments just appears to be a cheap way of doing a musical without an orchestra.  In this piece especially, those instruments get in the way of the performance, and the result is that the proceedings appear aimless and unfocused and the integrity of the material is severely diminished if not destroyed.  What he has done to some of the most iconic music of the theatre by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is criminal.

Doyle won a Tony Award for his misdirection of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, but for some, it was a case of being dazzled by the “emperor’s new clothes.”  In London, where this production of Todd began its life, it was ridiculous that Mrs. Lovett would pick up a trumpet and play as Toby sang “Not While I’m Around,” and it was equally disturbing for Anthony and Johanna to sing sweetly to each other while seated on either side of the stage with celli in their crotches.   This gave new meaning to the concept of “safe sex.”  Many people in the audience lost the plot, literally, as the minimal staging did nothing to support Sondheim’s often superbly dense language.

He is also guilty of a splendidly inept production of Mack and Mabel in London.   Once again, a down-sized cast running around with various instruments got in the way of the staging.  The action that drives the show came in second to the necessity to get somewhere else on stage to grab something to pluck, bang, or blow.  There are musicals where this works, but these are shows about bands of some sort.  The excellent Pump Boys and DinettesCowgirlsOil City Symphony, andSmoke on the Mountain need the instruments because they are based on stories about people playing them.  They are written in as part of the script; they are not imposed where they do not belong.

This is the case with Ten Cents a Dance.  Supposedly, the setting is an empty bar.  It looks more like a musical instrument storeroom or the bargain basement of a large music shop.  Dreary lighting by Jane Cox does not add to the necessary clutter of the set by Scott Pask.  The program relates that Doyle is a story teller.  It would help if the audience could possibly figure out what that story might be.

Before I go further, please let me assure you that I felt the cast was excellent, and they were committed to the material – which is superb.  Malcolm Getz shows that he fully understands these songs, and he presents them well even with awkward orchestrations and unfounded thematic concepts are thrust upon them.  From what I can gather, five women play “Miss Jones,” the woman he has loved and lost – maybe?  I was told that they represent the “women” in his life, but they are all named Miss Jones, and they are all versions of the same woman which does not support this claim.  I was also wondering, at points, if he might have been a musical mass murderer, and these were the women he had killed and hidden in a variety of double bass cases or something.  If this were the case, one of the songs in the evening, the lovely “Dancing on the Ceiling” from a long forgotten musical entitled Evergreen, may have served the cause better by changing the lyrics to “She dangles overhead from the ceiling by my bed…”

In essence, the evening can be summed up as:  Man plays piano, progressively aging women in rather ugly dresses descend a spiral staircase, play a variety of instruments, sing some songs, and climb back up the staircase.  You fill in the story.

Joining Getz as Miss Jones 5, and I considered her to be the lead Miss Jones, is Donna McKechnie.  I must say, it was a thrill to see her on stage again.  She can “sparkle” just as brightly here in this train wreck as she did when I saw her in London in Can-Can or back in A Chorus Line.  She is one of those people whose personality draws attention for all of the right reasons.

None of this is to diminish the other Miss Joneses as they all show good presence and talent, but it seemed obvious that some of them may have been hired because they could play a variety of instruments and not because they sang well.  Some of the voices are not bad; they are just not strong or full enough to do justice to the wonderful songs here.  The respective Miss Jones, from Miss Jones 1 through 4 (if this helps in any way) are: Elisa Winter, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright, and Diana DiMarzio.

Since the program does not give a song list with credits as to who sings what, it is a bit difficult to give credit where it is due.  All five women wear variations on the same dress by costumer Ann Hould-Ward with variations on the same red hairstyles created by Paul Huntley, so the middle three Miss Jones blended together at times.  Also, why the dresses and hairstyles seemed purposefully based on 1940’s designs and are made from a fabric whose ugliness defies description begs questioning.  The busy floral pattern of the material and brown/blue coloring does not read well from the back two-thirds of the house.  They just look like messy blobs as several of the dresses have intricate pleating and draping which further contorts the patter.  For variety, wouldn’t it have been better if it was more of a similar dress pattern but with a progressive color change that would indicate the station in life of each Miss Jones?  This too would give the audience some visual variety.  As it is, these dresses are just more clutter in an already cluttered set.

The songs that work the best in this scant 80 minute one-act are the songs that Doyle has allowed to simply be sung.  Most of the time, the Miss Joneses wander aimlessly around stage, the piano spins for no apparent reason, or Mr. Getz takes off his coat, vest, shirt, for no apparent reason – actually, it almost appeared at one point that he was rolling up his sleeves as if to exorcise these demonic women who have come back from the grave to attack him.

I honestly believe that I had more fun making up my own storyline which, like the proceedings on stage, also had nothing to do with these thirty-plus wonderful songs than I did trying to figure out what was happening on stage…but I digress.

The songs that work best are “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey and “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse.  Because the ladies did not have to move quickly from one side of the set to another or climb the stairs to play in some half-lit area or drape themselves over the piano to play instruments from positions that are too awkward to describe, the songs retained their integrity and were joyous reminders about just how good Rodgers and Hart were/are.  Doyle has imposed his bizarre vision on these songs and no one has won.  What should have been an uplifting reminder of the glory of one of America’s true original art forms is a blurry, enigmatic mess.

The movement of the women on stage also destroys the opportunity to fully appreciate Hart’s often biting and always clever lyrics.  The lyrics to one of Hart’s most inspired songs in particular, “To Keep My Love Alive” from A Connecticut Yankee are almost totally lost, and the delightful “Little Girl Blue” from Jumbo is turned into a game of musical freeze-tag here.  It’s all too aggravating.

All of this saddens me as I was very much looking forward to seeing this show.  I have enjoyed Getz in his other shows and films, and the chance to see Donna McKechnie again is one I would not miss.  I was happy to have seen them; I just wish they had been allowed to do the material as it was meant to be performed: straightforward and from the hip.  There is no pretense in a Rodgers and Hart song.  In this production by the misguided John Doyle, there is nothing but pretense and the resounding thud of pretentiousness masquerading as thoughtful art.

mk