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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The latest revival of the stage adaptation of Henry James’ novel WASHINGTON SQUARE titled THE HEIRESS closed on February 9, 2013 after a successful eighteen-week limited run of 117 performances that earned back its investment.  The story of a young woman who is filled with self-doubt due to the machinations of a parent is timeless, and it is now receiving a fresh infusion in the George St. Playhouse / Cleveland Playhouse co-production of Victoria Stewart’s RICH GIRL which is appearing at the George St. Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ through April 7.

Where noted physician, Dr. Sloper, belittles his daughter Catherine because she is alive and her “perfect” mother died at Catherine’s birth in the original, here money guru Eve Walker (Dee Hoty) controls and marginalizes her daughter Claudine (Crystal Finn) because she is the product of an unhappy marriage.  In both stories, the young women must find their strengths themselves.  However, where Catherine seems to be left in a world of darkens and solitude, there is hope for Claudine, especially for those of us who are incurable romantics and really need happy endings.

Eve is a popular financial speaker and author in the mode of Suze Ormon.  She was a waitress who married a young law student, put him through school, and was then left destitute by him while eight months pregnant with Claudine.  It’s no wonder then that her suggestions include ideas like, “Being in love means seeing a lawyer before you get married,” and “When a man and a woman truly love each other, they will sign a pre-nup.”  She now has a multi-million dollar philanthropic organization that focuses on educating children which she intends to leave to Claudine if Claudine can manage to prove her worth to her mother.

Also, as in the original, there is a speculative love interest.  Here, it is theatrical producer, director, designer, and actor Henry (Tony Roach).  Where the original Morris Townsend was overtly an opportunist looking to get Catherine’s money, Henry is written with such care that the question remains entirely open-ended.  Eve, however, believes that her money is all he is after since she cannot imagine why anyone would love or even want her clumsy, awkward, and backward daughter.  It is clear to see that Henry is, in many ways, similar to Morris, but Henry has an obvious conscience that Morris lacks.

One final character comes into play in this mix.  In the original, it’s Catherine’s widowed Aunt Lavinia who only sees a chance for Catherine to not be alone any longer.   RICH GIRL has the formidable talents of Liz Larsen as Maggie, Eve’s assistant and Claudine’s guardian angel.  Larsen adds a wonderfully sarcastic edge to the proceedings with hilarious readings of lines like “If you were only married, older, balding, and on the Internet, you’d be perfect for me” which Stewart has amply scattered throughout the script.  There is a pleasant balance here of comedy and pathos that is not evident in the original text, and the treatment is fresh and beautifully realized.

Does Henry really love Claudine and will they be together eventually?  It would be unfair of me to tell – besides, I know what I want to happen, and it may not have been Stewart’s intent.

Just about everything regarding this production is superb.  The unit set by Wilson Chin is attractive and serviceable.  When it comes down to people discussing minutiae such as to whether or not the sofa, coffee table, and bar set-up are right for the room (I do not think they are.) and finally deciding that Eve has money and possibly not taste, it’s a good sign that the set is stellar.  One or two costumes in the otherwise excellent design by Jennifer Caprio also missed the mark such as the ugly red “sweat pants” and strangely patterned top for Claudine in the last scene.  The lighting by Matthew Richards includes some absolutely stunning sunrises and sunsets, and Dave Bova deserves a special mention for the excellent wig designs for Claudine and Eve.

The ensemble on stage at George St. is extremely strong.  Hoty makes Eve both a detestable and empathetic character.  Where Dr. Sloper overtly loathes his daughter, Eve can’t help but see her as the product of her failure, and she does not like failure, but also as something she needs to protect and for which she must ensure a solid future.  She does care, but she is so emotionally damaged that she cannot fully show it.  Eve has decided that the only way she can survive is by being a harder person than everyone else.  It is to Hoty’s credit that one can still care about Eve even though she seems as though she is heading towards the isolation of Dickens’ Miss Haversham in her single-mindedness.  She believes she fully understands the world, and sums up Henry’s proposal of marriage to Claudine by reminding her that “I can turn on the T.V. every night of the week to watch someone eat bugs for the chance to win $25,000.  That’s the world we live in.” To liken a marriage to one’s daughter as being as questionable as eating “bugs” and other such stunts for money is reprehensible.

Finn’s Claudine is a charming study in self-doubt initially, but as she becomes more self aware and sure of herself, her spine and carriage change as well, and she blossoms before the audience.  Claudine could also be an unlikable character, but Finn imbues her with so many nuances and failings that one cannot help but care for her.  Even when she has made the transition to successful businesswoman, there is still some of the child-like Claudine present.

Maggie acts as the Greek chorus and fills in all of the necessary talking points; this is often a thankless job on stage.  Shakespeare often singled out one character like Benvolio in ROMEO AND JULIET who always got left behind to tell everyone what happened in case they were napping.  Do people generally remember Benvolio when they talk about the play?  No!  However, people will remember Liz Larsen who is immediately recognizable as the wisecracking “Eve Arden” friend who always seems to be on the fringes but is right in the middle of everything.  Here too is a character who is somewhat reprehensible.  She spies on Claudine for Eve, does thorough background checks on Henry, but is still immensely loveable.  Larsen also shows her impeccable timing delivering the often Simon-esque one-liners supplied to her by Stewart.

Roach has the toughest job of the evening since he works with a character who is purposefully enigmatic.  Whatever choices he has made for his character’s actions must pretty much remain transparent so that the audience keeps guessing throughout.  Roach is charming and energetic and, most of all, is believable.  Even if he is a heel, he is still a likable heel, but he might not be a heel at all.

When all is said and done, RICH GIRL is an excellent way to spend two hours in a theatre.  The well written characters are superbly acted in a visually pleasing production, and the adaptation is never forced and, for those who know the original material, more of a homage to the creations of James than a copy.  It is nice to see an intelligently adapted piece that actually extends the characters, adding depth and nuances that are true to the change in time periods.   Even if it does not make it to Broadway, this show is certain to be around in regional theatres for some time to come.

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