On Repertory Theatre
Suddenly Last Summer, Hedda Gabler, Home, Kaos, others
clockwise from upper left: Suddenly Last Summer, Hedda Gabler, Home, Kaos
On Repertory Theater; Or, Exorcizing Ghosts
Refer to a play as repertory and evoke a churchly silence of respect, especially if its playwright is still living. Dead playwrights have the best chance of becoming part of repertory though the term nowadays applies more widely than its dictionary meaning. At the least, repertory seems to imply an honorific. A play said to be “in the repertory” must be “good”, since it then ” ranks among works regularly produced as symptoms of our cultural identity,” to quote one artistic director.* Which culture and whose identity immediately become suspect since ours is, in fact, a pluralistic society with several cultural affiliations. Nor does adding a qualifier to the title of a play offer an out: say, “the classic Hamlet,” or “canonical,” or even “enduring,” the most circular of the three terms often used in this connection. That is to say, some plays “endure” because they are “classic” and thus implicitly part of “repertory”–-a circular route indeed. An event called “theater” might recall clowns or jokes and spectacle, while “repertory theater” might, unhappily, refer to the work that closed on Saturday night.
To come closer to the center here, certainly repertory is Hamlet and maybe Hamlet, (more of this below)-- no one doubts Shakespeare’s place at the top of the art form he pretty well invented. Is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman repertory, since the play resonates not only theme but character in modern America.? Then are George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? also “in” the repertory? That’s harder to say. George and Martha are quite dead and haunt the hall as ghosts of literary history, though their maker, Edward Albee, is quite reliably alive.
Given the ambiguity of the term, dead playwrights and characters qualify best for repertory status and fictional characters rank a close second. Surely this is an odd result in an art form that claims to exist “in the moment,” when and as performed. A revised definition at length might call repertory a theater piece recited on a stage to keep an old culture alive (say, Elizabethan) while yet representing the historical moment of the playwright (1690) and his audiences (the US now). Clumsy but not right either. The term might be hauled out to refer to a little known play by a well known writer: thus, perhaps, Titus Andronicus, in my view otherwise eligible for extinction. Choosing to produce such a dependent work may reflect a company’s strategy for freshening up a season otherwise featuring old familiars, say, the second string comedies like Love’s Labours Lost. The penalty, nonetheless, is the same as would follow from mounting a weak play by an unknown writer, which conditions kept it off stage in the first place.
Does a sharp definition matter? Well, yes. Popular wisdom understands the regrettable status of the stage relative to film in American life. That simply is history; we invented movies and made them our business. Theater instead runs on a circuit somewhere between art and entertainment, chiefly through the big cities –New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, which contain physical theaters, often old opera houses, and where there is enough potential business to pay a company’s rent. Still, economics is not the point here. At issue is repertory theater’s twin jobs of expressing our present culture and connecting it to the past. If actors do indeed personify ‘the abstract and brief chronicle of our time’, as Hamlet claimed, their repertory inevitably would encapsulate history in the making. Well, almost. Hamlet’s point needs considerable amending before it may apply. Put the other way around, actors representing every cultural background in America would fill a huge hall, whereas the tradition understood to be “in” our repertory is Anglo-American.
A number of plays that ran this season belong securely to repertory. A beautiful rendering of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer, set in 1936 New Orleans, at its least a representation of Williams’s best work and its period. No one nowadays writes the formal structure that Williams used of “exposition, complication, crisis, and denouement.” More than a skeleton or frame, the structure gave both distance and balance to a subject at once shocking and perhaps ultimately unplayable. The action pivots on two women who shared the life of Sebastian, the dead poet: his mother Mrs. Venable (Blythe Danner) and his fiancé Catharine Holly (Carla Gugino). Basically a character play, its thin plot involves the mother’s discovery of a long- hidden truth about her boy poet. The mother speaks first, a monologue, about her job well done of protecting her son and his gift. Then the girl tells of her inadequate protection: after marriage, the boy’s instinctual life emerged at its most savage and hinging on his ultimate sexual experience of being devoured. He fantasized it, courted it, and used his wife to pimp for him on a public beach where poor, black boys played. They taunted Sebastian and victimized him. Mother had paid handsomely to lock the girl away in a nursing home and bury her secret. To no avail.
The sexual metaphor would have caused enough trouble in any period including our own for actors to get right. But a sense of subterranean connectedness among people and emotions, the web-like nature of experience that reaches out like moss on swamp trees to rot moral well being, this is Williams’s bedrock. Program notes suggest that current audiences are too sexually canny to be shocked by the content of SLS. But I doubt that for similar reasons. Sensationalism was not Williams’s aim. He was tearing veils off of social piety at a moment when psychiatry was reaching a peak of popularity. It almost proposed itself as a spiritual cure-all displacing religion, the metaphoric point as I take it for the girl’s keeper at the “rest home” to be a nun. But the girl’s sexual liberation, her education through marriage simply exploits a standard social convention of the virginal maid awakened by a conscripted hero-husband. Mother Venable (is this venal? venery? they all work) has no facts about her son, yet pays to keep the girl quiet in a distant rest home, suspecting something dreadful and preferring not to know.
The production played in low key for the script’s ironies, abounding. The doctor called in by Mrs. Venable gives the girl a shot of truth serum so she’ll tell her secrets about the dead boy. Her recital of a typical day on the public beach where she “pimps for” Sebastian is quite as horrible to the audience as to the appalled mother. The set by Santo Loquasto in a mossy green looks more elegant than New Orleans or any place on earth could be, but that’s how much looks can deceive. Even the scrim of leafy trees dappled with soft light were indirect reflectors of a South that minded its manners, cared about maintaining a social decorum that distinguished sharply between public and private. When the girl shouts, Mrs. Venable shrinks with horror at the possibility that someone will overhear, a circumstance nearly as important as their topic.
A palm should be given to the Hedda Gabler performed at BAM, its audience limited only by its familiarity with German. (Ibsen, who invented modern drama, can hardly be dismissed from repertory by a narrow definition of the term discussed above.) The actors are young, handsome, they move briskly; there’s no sense of Fall in the air (Ibsen’s setting), or of Hedda narrowly escaping a neurotic spinster’s empty future. She says, in effect, no, I wasn’t on the shelf; I deliberately chose Tesman the medieval scholar over other suitors; all is well. The production is so well invested in playing the surface–rather than the three suppressed levels of every Ibsen line– special attention is needed to catch the so-called dark “subtext” leading to Hedda’s suicide. She is almost matter-of-fact with the good looking Lovborg, taking him for granted as already won. She wants “power over a human life,” she says, and it is his life that she toys with by giving him her pistols and urging him to use them. Then she is brisk with Dr. Rank, forgetting that his knowing about her pistols gives him power over her. But finally in this production she, they, resemble contemporary teenagers in their lack of forethought, careless people, more like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s than Ibsen’s in their smart, upbeat “take” on the world that almost predicts their failure. This approach is interesting rather than insightful and ultimately superficial. There is no metaphoric wild duck caught in the weeds.
A parallel point might be made about Kaos, a theater piece based on the story of that name by Pirandello, choreographed by Martha Clark, and narrated in Italian. It was wise to play the Italian. The English translation falls short of professional quality–but there’s no indication for what or whom the translation is destined. In this production too, the surface captures attention: a stark set of granite-like walls; sharp lighting; easy groupings of Sicilians, dressed in worn black suits and fedoras, moving across the stage in blocks. The Pirandellian twist is missing; the wicked “in joke” that at once sympathizes with these characters and mocks them.
American repertory , or what Shep Sobel of The Pearl Theater calls “open repertory” is having its day with a Sam Shepard festival. Family is so obviously Shepard’s subject, and that subject so often called mythic, we may forget that the classic American drama, say, that of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, has at one time or another been called mythic. The rubric goes with the territory. Shepard makes family mythic even when he deals with only part of the family, for instance in The Late Henry Moss, with two desperate brothers, very like those two who turn up in True West (1980). Since then, the pair may have become abstracts of themselves. Or perhaps it would be fairer to call them relics of their American ancestor, the cowboy, laconic, loose-jointed, so far laid back he seems to have left no legacy of language or much of a consciousness at all, except for his automatic, nearly reflexive, violence.
It is the preferred response to every social occasion for these brothers, Earl and Ray, (James Wetzel and Rod Sweitzer, respectively) stuck in boyhood, dysfunctional in the current jargon, since they never grew up into lovers or husbands. They had no model for that. (“How’s the family?” one says. “I’ve got no family,” he answers belligerently. “What about you?” “Nope.” That is how well they know each other.) The father is dead on (our) arrival: curtain goes up on the funereal affair and travels backward in time to his days as a nasty, ignorant, drunk who regularly beat his wife, ultimately to death, while the elder boy, Ray, watched helplessly.
Yes, such is metaphor is Shepard territory, the wide, empty country of the dead father and absent mother. The sons who meet for the father’s funeral represent the end of possibility in his “run down shack at the edge of the New Mexican desert.” They talk, minimally, through the strangeness of the father’s death, not in a sudden excess of fraternal feeling, but to figure out their own and the other’s identity, their relatedness, and their joint ownership of the past. They never saw themselves as family and the recognition involves painful adjustments, mainly to the ego. So, Ray the New Yorker who unexpectedly decides to stay around, picks up his inheritance by ostentatiously stocking a few cans of food in the empty refrigerator.
The act expresses neither a feminine nor a nurturing impulse or any such thing. Shepard has used a food metaphor several times, most memorably that basket of corn being shucked by the invading younger generation in Buried Child makes toast and the aroma fills the theater with images of home. Here the food indicates possession, taking up the father’s destitute life, or rather inhabiting it. Ray also inherits paternal violence, attacking and beating his younger brother for no motive other than to establish his dominion.
Shepard’s genius for theater shows in his astonishing capacity to amaze an audience with unexpected recognitions. He is “on” in that seemingly effortless way typical of superior writers and, to get past over-speak here, projecting the confidence of his expertise as a prize winning playwright–-his Pulitzer was for Buried Child (1979). He has written more than forty plays, blessedly none of the ‘staged movie’ variety, as some rather careless criticism has sometimes said. His drama rather delivers an elemental, visceral jolt that seems to be authentic of male experience, by report that is, but reaches across the footlights, as the cliché says, to women as well. His characters thus far exclude other than referential women, that is to say not central characters, for good and obvious reason. In Henry Moss there is Conchalla, the friendly, sexy neighbor of the dead father, who appears occasionally to tease the sons. They’re not up to her, she taunts. The evidence says she is right. But sexuality is not a topic here so much as an incidental allusion. Typically, Shepard’s people lay claim to territories of the brain dead, the amnesiac, the brutal, the seemingly ineffectual killer, the pop cult hero at his least.
Performances in this production are adequate, not up to the text, which can tolerate being squeezed dry, if I may, instead of being left to speak its own mind in a partially strangled voice. Put it this way: the play needed to be performed to become theater. The text of The Late Henry Moss is immediately available, without spelling itself out word for word, said and re-said. The current production, instead, tended to enunciate what might have been talked, an effect that might be anomalous in theater when, if, it becomes self conscious. Yet, in part, the positive side of the same effect may, literally and ironically, tell why the play genuinely evokes cowboys, a primal American image rather than talk about an image. On another level, a similar lapse into the inarticulate tells the audience how to respond to the work. The Late Henry Moss is not out to capture or reflect movies either; that is to say, it was not written with cinema in mind. I think. It’s talk, talk, talk, yet without a complex word anywhere, not, after all, in the vocabulary of American men.
Regrettably, the version at the Creative Place Theatre seemed not to have theatricality in mind either; I refer here to the responsibility of the performers rather than to part of Shepard’s mode. He typically is absorbed in drama, motive and event; in what is said; he uses up stage and character stereotypes as if trying to get beyond the legacy of Tennessee Williams in our generation. In a sense, his stereotypes do just that. The one woman in this opus, Bonnie, steps straight out of Williams’ Maggie the Cat, though frankly a prostitute, used, beaten up, and thrown out on the road. (It’s another metaphor) She is a terrifying image of woman in her torn, black mesh stockings, stumbling into the boys latter day cabin on the prairie, necessarily nearly whining in her appeal for help. The boys don’t see or hear her, of course, living for the road as they do, with each other and their car, which demands their entire attention as mechanics. They have tools for broken motors.
Another pair, Jack (Simon Jones) and Harry (Larry Keith) in David Storey’s prizewinning Home are no better at relating to one another, but they have been officially displaced by their maker. The ironic “home” of the title is a retirement place where Harry announces he came voluntarily. The two middle class duffers sit in a garden of sorts and talk in code, short blunt phrases that tell more than is spoken about their isolation and loneliness. They cannot connect the present to the past, are condemned to fatuousness, some of it funny: the well timed “I say”, “could be”, “very likely” which substitute for language and idea. Keith’s frustration at one point drives him to barely disguised tears all the more moving since such men do not weep. The plight of the two women of the piece, Cynthia Harris (Marjorie) and Cynthia Darlow (Kathleen) is superficially more available as more deliberately boneheaded and funny. They survive on good cheer, everyday solicitude about each other and their routines: brief “sits” in the garden between regular meals. Their perfectly hideous, plain dresses that defy a style suggest an anyplace, perhaps of the ‘fifties, nothing in their innocuous chatter refers to a known world howsoever distant. They like the men are live cliches, types, one skeptical, one gullible, both innocent, though Cynthia Darlow’s giggling makes her the more infectious of the two. Their chatter says everything about them and that’s not much. The playwright conjures them by ear, so to speak, through an accent, nearly a dialect that would betray them instantly to Professor Higgins and says more to the English than to us. That’s the fun of “Home.” Its gift hinges on its power to convey these characters’ deliberately suppressed sadness, habitually unexpressed, a matter of form, and therefore the undertone of compassion for them nearly audible throughout the play. ________________________________________________________________-
True West at The White Horse Theater Company at The Creative Place Theatre, NYC. Hedda Gabler by Hendrik Ibsen. Translated by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel. At 59E59. Home by David Storey at The Actors Company Theatre at Theatre Row, NYC.