A Streetcar Named Desire

Dear Writers’ Theatre:

I am so sorry.  So, so sorry.  I just can’t stand the play.  I came anyway, because I love you.  And I hoped that most of my problem with A Streetcar Named Desire is the movie version.  I don’t believe any fan of Vivien Leigh could stand it.  But really, my problem is that there is no one to root for.  I have dismissed several works of “great literature” with that judgement and I understand that it is not a valid criticism for any piece of art.  So let’s get to what might be valid criticism:

Someone was having a bit too much fun with the “intimacy” factor.  I have twice complained in this blog about the goofy seating changes you sometimes make to accommodate a vision for the set.  In theory, I am in favor of it.  I subscribe because I am interested in seeing something different.  I imagine you were trying to give the audience a feel for how the tiny apartment in hot, humid New Orleans was just charged with the electricity of the brewing conflict or whatever.  But I was a dozen feet from your actor’s wet and quite naked butt.  There is the discomfort of feeling the emotional charge and then there is the discomfort of feeling like the place is…unsanitary.

Fine.  I am a prude.  A Yankee prude.  An illiterate Yankee prude.

But I had to leave.

This clip is a decent scene that Writers’ Theatre posted on YouTube.  It is the one in which I find Blanche to be almost likeable.

The Minister’s Wife

The Chicago Tribune reports that Writers’ Theatre is sending another show to New York – The Minister’s Wife.  It is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.  It was produced last Spring.

I wrote about it last year and I remember it more fondly than it appears.

This isn’t the first production from Writers’ Theatre to be picked up in New York.  They did a new adaptation of Crime and Punishment that went Off Broadway a couple of years ago.  I am always glad to hear of these successes, although it means Michael Halberstam will spend a whole bunch of time in New York.  I hope he doesn’t start to neglect the projects he develops for Writers’ Theatre.  I’ve said it a hundred times – I don’t love everything they do, but I love that they do new things I would never otherwise experience.  Michael has always made that happen.  This makes me think of something I once heard in New Orleans:

I was taking one of those cooking classes and another student asked what the instructor thought about Emeril.  The answer has stuck with me for years (obviously):

“Emeril has done great things for the culinary industry and great things for New Orleans.  But I wish he would spend less time on television and more time in his own kitchen.”

That was the judgement of a peer.  This is only the anxious thought of an admirer.  Here’s hoping Michael doesn’t bail out on his own kitchen.

The Old Settler

Writers’ Theatre won a million points with me for making such a hassle-free exchange of my tickets, when I decided on two weeks’ notice to go on vacation. Then, they won a few more points for sending me an e-mail reminder for Sunday that included a reminder about Daylight Savings.

That’s customer service.

The Old Settler is a story about two sisters of a certain age living in war time Harlem that take in a boarder – a nice Southern boy looking for his fiancée. The fiancée turns up, is a big pill and drama ensues.

The playbill made a big deal about how this is African American material. Well..it was set in Harlem, and the actors were African American, but it otherwise seemed to be a pretty standard drama about the American Experience. You know what made it an African American thing to me? The audience.

Writers’ Theatre, bless their hearts, try very hard to produce material that broaden our little literary horizons. But the reality is that the audience is extremely white and extremely suburban. That’s what happens when you set up shop in Glencoe. But for this production, I think a fourth..maybe even a third of the audience was African American. And it was awesome.

The theatre is really intimate – a hundred seats. I know I have told you that legend has it in one show, when a fight broke out in the action of the play, a member of the audience actually got up out of his seat to break it up. Because he’d forgotten. This show had near that kind of audience participation. A couple of audience shout outs when there was an argument between characters. Some big “Woooooo!”s when there was smooching. And – I kid you not – a collective Marge Simpson noise of displeasure when the leading lady declared, “I would have made him love me!” I have never seen this happen before.

The acting was fabulous. I saw the show with the understudy playing the lead role of Miss Elizabeth and she was wonderful. This clip seems a bit more forced than I remember it on stage, but I imagine this was taken during the dress rehearsals so I forgive them. The lady playing Lou Bessie reminded me a bit much of Jackee Harry’s character on 227, except without any heart at all. I have pondered it for a day now, and rather think that was deliberate.

I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun at a show.

Oh, Coward!

The second show of the season at Writers’ Theatre this season is a musical revue of Noel Coward material called “Oh, Coward!”.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I left at Intermission and didn’t come back. I didn’t actually see the entire thing.  I have done this a few times before. I am not proud of it, but…
This was the one show of the year in the old space at the back of the book store. They tend to get creative with the staging in this space. Because there isn’t much of it, they go for “intimacy”. What I didn’t know going in, but can see on the website now, is that it is a General Admission show. Which means that the fact that I have been a subscriber for my entire adult life could not get me a good seat, even though I was a good 20 minutes early. They made it rather clubby with the piano on one end and the audience around the sides. The front row had the benefit of cocktail tables. Would’ve been nice. In a regular show, when I normally have a front row seat, I regularly and cheerfully risk being spit on by the actors. But when the front row would have been a boon, it is General Admission. Oh, and there were Reserved Seats. Which was a crock, because random latecomers were seated there. I know they were random, as opposed to VIPs, because the usher searched for someplace else to put them before seating them right there in front of me at the cocktail table that four dozen other people wanted.
And one last thing about the seating: every seat was taken, even though I had my second subscription ticket, unused, in my pocket.
Now, then. I love Noel Coward. Writers’ Theatre has done two of his plays before and they were both great. “Private Lives” should really be produced more often. But a musical revue? I seem to recall the Master Singers doing one in high school. Oh, Coward! reminded me of that.
Three actors and a pianist. They came right out singing. In about 45 seconds, I was thinking:
I missed the second half of the Giants/Cowboys for this…and I could be doing homework. Or packing. Or watching the Vikings/Cardinals game. If I left at Intermission, I could go home do some homework and watch the game while I’m packing. Oh! And I could stop at Starbuck’s!
OK, I’m sorry. 
The actors were fine. The pianist was charming. I just don’t like the “revue” concept. So here is a link to a real review. Just remember to get there early.

Writers’ Theatre – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

Back for the new season at Writers’ Theatre and the first show was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which I really dig. This play was my second experience with the alternate point of view genre (Grendel was the first – both in AP English). I remember it because my nerd friends started playing The Question Game for awhile. That was right around the time that Kris’ parents started doing missionary work in Africa and we all discovered Jello shots, but never mind that.

Where Grendel and Wicked are from the point of view of the villain, and Rhett Butler’s People and a whole slew of Pride and Prejudice books are from the point of view of the romantic lead, this took two characters from Hamlet that were rather throwaway and made them the focus of a story. (If you want the point of view of the bad guy in Hamlet, try John Updike’s Gertrude & Claudius. Messed with my head.)

R&G were always kinda dumb, so the piece is part comedy. It is also part philosophy. The guy behind me at the show, (in between blowing his nose just a bit too close to my hair) suggested that it was a “purgatory piece” – where the characters are already dead and reflecting on their choices.

I’m pretty sure that was one of the theories going around about Lost.

I have seen several different versions of Hamlet, and while my mother may faint to hear me forsake Olivier, I must declare that I live and die by the Branagh version. Which means that the rather..um..flamboyant characters of The Players messed me up. Because I was somehow looking for Charleton Heston. It took me about 2.4 seconds to get over that and I loved them.

So the set design was a stage. And the backdrop was a mural of theatre seats. When the “Hamlet action” was going on, the actors all faced the other way. I’m not sure whether that is standard technique for the piece, or Michael Halberstam came up with it himself, but it was awesome. Although, now that I am writing it, it sounds like they are trying to coach the audience on what is the canon and what isn’t. There was actually a flyer in the program that had a summary of the original Shakespeare.

The part is so small, but I must say: if I were going to make a Top Ten List of the most annoying characters in all of literature, Polonius would totally be there. (As would Mrs. Bennet. Oh, and Sue Ellen O’Hara. I am going to have to write a full post on that concept.) And the actor that played Polonius was the most annoying Polonius he could possibly be. Which I guess is a good thing.

The actors that played the leads (Writer’s Theatre Fave Sean Fortunato and New Guy Timothy Edward Kane) were really good. The Tribune critic thought that Kane was too broody as Guildenstern, but I thought it added some weight to the Free Will debate that I hadn’t considered before. Fortunato was goofier; kind of child-like. I guess that was the better foil.

Of course, the big license the play takes is in suggesting that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were aware that they were to be executed and stumbled into their fate with their eyes open. My 18 year old self did not buy this idea. In this show, they somehow pull it off. Or maybe it is just my matured suspension of disbelief. Or the purgatory thing.

Whatever. This show rocked.

Writers’ Theatre – The Minister’s Wife

I closed my vacation with the Writers’ Theatre’s last show of the season, The Minister’s Wife, which is a world premiere musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida.

I’ll just let that one sink in for a minute.

Writers’ Theatre has done more than one “world premiere” and I generally enjoy them. It was directed by Michael Halberstam (my one true love) who has directed Candida in the past. In fact, if I understood the story from the playbill, Michael lit the fuse that launched the project in the first place.

I don’t always agree with his choices. And seriously, I didn’t even hear the second half of the first song because my eyeballs had rolled all the way to the back of my head and I was trying to shake them back into focus. But I warmed up to it.

Here is the summary from the website:

Reverend James Morell and his wife, Candida, are happily married—at least so they think. But when Eugene Marchbanks, a romantic young poet aims to rescue Candida from her domestic routine, everyone’s world is turned upside down. This world premiere musical is adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Candida by Austin Pendleton with lyrics by Jan Tranen and music by Josh Schmidt, the highly acclaimed and award-winning composer of Adding Machine. Sharp, witty and tender, A Minister’s Wife explores the fires burning beneath the surface of an ordinary marriage and discovers a secret in the heart.

First, someone please help me with this: When I was in high school, I was taught a term for a particular literary device and I can’t remember it:

When a character is much discussed but little spoken to, when what she does means less than what she represents – it is called something. In class, we were discussing the chick in Cyrano de Bergerac. That is how Candida seems in the beginning of the story. I was all braced for just exactly how much I was going to hate this character when she finally made an appearance.

But as the play progresses and we get to know her, Candida doesn’t suck. I rather liked her. I fancy that I even understood her.

[That sound you heard was my mother fainting dead away.]

The men were the big fools. The climax of the play involves Candida’s husband and the 18-year old punk asking her to choose between them. I laughed out loud as Candida played along. That might have something to do with the actor playing the kid – he was like a big, demented Hobbit. I am pretty sure he meant to play it that way.

The actors were good all the way around. The musicians, huddled backstage, sounded great to my untrained ear. I’m just not sure this one requires singing.

In any event, here goes Writers’ Theatre again, making me go read a play to find out if I really liked it or I just liked this interpretation.

Writers’ Theatre – The Maids

I just got back from seeing The Maids, the current production at Writers’ Theatre. I am sorry to say I was not impressed with this one. At first I thought the actors were over-acting, but really it was the story.

Two maids, sisters, have a game of mocking the mistress and each other while she is away. The fantasy goes so far as acting out how they might kill her. It is difficult to see where the fantasy ends and where they are just plain crazy, which may be part of the point. But I wasn’t all that interested in figuring it out. None of the three characters were sympathetic. I was just waiting around to see if someone actually died.

If this had been an adapted novel, I might pick it up to see where/if the adaptation went wrong. But it seems to have been an original, if translated, piece.

This is a good example of the down side to Writers’ Theatre. The upside is that they do cool things that you would never see anywhere else. The downside is that sometimes there is a reason you wouldn’t see them anywhere else.