Saturday, May 2, 2009

Oh, lordy

Let's see, what have I not been blogging about lately? Celebrity sightings, for one: Swoosie Kurtz, in the audience at MTC's Ruined! Brian d'Arcy James, on his way to the Broadway to get into his Shrek makeup!

And then there are all the shows I've seen and not told you about. Let's start with a relatively recent one: Lincoln Center's revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, directed by Bartlett Sher. Like everything Sher directs, this production has a cool set and is lovely to look at. And, of course, that's not quite enough. Sher seems to have focused all his attention on making the comic parts come across. The play gets plenty of laughs -- at least, it did when I saw it -- but after a while the approach feels condescending and inappropriate. The production isn't taking the characters seriously. By the second act, the audience was whooping so loudly at every hint of romance, I felt like I was in the studio audience for a taping of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And, as you can imagine, that meant when the the play turned serious, the audience was left behind. There's a scene, late in the play, when Herald Loomis is slain by the spirit. He falls to the ground, writhing and babbling, and the people in the audience cackled and hooted, because they thought the whole thing was a comedy routine. Oh, those turn-of-the-century black people and their ridiculous spiritual practices!

In that atmosphere, the ending falls totally flat. I left thinking, "I'm still not sure what this play means, but I'm sure it's not whatever Bartlett Sher thinks it means." For enlightenment I turned to my man Michael Feingold at the Village Voice, brilliant as usual:

Searching and finding, on the fleshly as on the spiritual level, are the play's major motifs. The principal focus is Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), whose life has been shattered by "Joe Turner"—a legendary white Southern bigwig notorious for railroading black men into penal servitude on his plantation. The variant spelling of Herald's name is intentional: Searching not only for his missing wife but for a life free of racist victimhood to replace his seven lost years, he is a "shining" prophet, heralding the new black consciousness, though his newfound stature is bound up with bitter ironies and lingering entanglements.

He also got at the heart of why and how the ensemble doesn't quite gel:
Bartlett Sher's production, its scenic elements constantly gliding on- and offstage, catches the dreamlike quality, but oddly combines it with a presentational acting style that pushes Wilson's innocently straightforward characters into irritatingly showbizzy postures: They're selling you the dream, not living it. Coleman, smoldering like a volcano about to blow, and Marsha Stephanie Blake, as a meekly lovelorn young woman, seem to have wisely ignored the incessant eyes-front directing; Roger Robinson, as a canny old mystic, cunningly turns the stagy flamboyance to the character's purpose, creating the show's best-sustained performance.

The characters don't seem to be in the same world, and they certainly don't seem to be in the world Wilson wrote. Arliss Howard is particularly off-the-mark as Rutherford Selig, the play's only white character. He plays Selig as dark and menacing when he should be benign and benighted. He draws out every line as though it were the most important one in the play, when a lot of it is Wilson's signature repetitive conversational banter. And he speaks with a Northern accent (it seems like every other word he says is "aboot"), which is a significant distraction given Selig's Southern roots. The character has a whole speech about his family history, and it's very hard to ignore all the errant vowels.

I saw Raynor Scheine play Selig in Gem of the Ocean a few years ago (directed by Kenny Leon), so that was the take I was expecting to see here. Scheine also created the character on Broadway in Joe Turner, and Frank Rich's 1988 review praised his performance:
The first-rate cast, which also includes Raynor Scheine as a benign white river rat and Angela Bassett as a fervent convert to the white god that failed her ancestors, forms a supple, harmonic ensemble.
"A benign white river rat" -- perfect. (Also, holy cow, Angela Bassett!) I was also impressed, and saddened, by the end of Rich's review:
The oblique, symbiotic relationship between Mr. Hall's otherworldly Bynum and Mr. Lindo's Loomis is particularly impressive. The two men's subliminal, often unspoken connection emerges like a magnetic force whenever they are onstage together. Loomis, we're told, was in happier days the deacon of the "Abundant Light" church. Under Mr. Hall's subtle psychological prodding and healing, Mr. Lindo gradually metamorphoses from a man whose opaque, defeated blackness signals the extinction of that light into a truly luminous "shining man," bathing the entire theater in the abundant ecstasy of his liberation. The sight is indescribably moving. An American writer in the deepest sense, August Wilson has once again shown us how in another man's freedom we find our own.

Oh, so that's what it's supposed to be like.

Anyway, I didn't find much to appreciate in Ben Brantley's glowing review of this "splendid production" with its "organic acting" -- what play did he see? And I was particularly dismayed, a few days later, to see the front-page article -- front page, not just front-of-the-arts-section! -- about how Bartlett Sher is so great. Well, OK, ostensibly it was about the "controversy" of having a white man direct a major August Wilson revival, given that in life Wilson insisted on black directors. Before I saw this production, I might have thought that policy was needlessly narrow-minded. I know Wilson wants to give black directors opportunity, but couldn't there be a non-African-American director who was, in a given case, the best person for the job? But now I get it. To my mind, this production is a perfect illustration of why Wilson might have been right to insist on black directors for his plays -- he must have known they were less likely to give in to the temptation to direct something like Joe Turner as a sustained exercise in "Black people so funny!" August Wilson deserves better. So do his characters -- and so do audiences.

No comments: