Saturday, March 13, 2010

Winter and rough weather

I was excited about the return of The Bridge Project, after last year's productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale (which I reviewed for Commonweal). I got tickets months in advance, and I thought I would write up this year's plays too. But I reconsidered on the way home from As You Like It. There just wasn't enough to write about.

Sam Mendes is your man when you want to create a mood or establish atmosphere. He knows how to make a pretty picture onstage, one that looks ethereal but still appropriately theatrical. But interpreting texts in a consistent manner is just not one of his strengths. I got the impression he had read through As You Like It and highlighted a couple of details that intrigued him, and then and then mounted his production without paying any attention to the whole picture. (For example -- "How merry are my spirits" is probably not what Rosalind says at the top of Act Two, Scene Four, but Mendes not only went with "merry" where most would agree that she should say "weary"; he built the entire scene around her unaccountable merriment.) Michael Feingold put it this way: "Mendes's besetting sin as a director is that he seems to fuss over scenes rather than think them through." Exactly right. Mendes came up with some novel ways to present disposable, short scenes -- a little torture here, a random nightmare-vision there -- when he ought to have been focusing on how the long, pivotal scenes were playing out. The result is all trees and no forest.

There were small delights in As You Like It, including a few performances: Juliet Rylance as Rosalind, Thomas Sadoski as Touchstone, Anthony O'Donnell as Corin, Aaron Krohn as Silvius, Ashlie Atkinson as Phoebe, Alvin Epstein as Adam. But the cast was disappointingly uneven. And how to explain the total lack of onstage chemistry between Rylance and her real-life husband, Christian Camargo? Generally it struck me as strange that a play so obsessed with romance should be so flat and unromantic, and that a play so obsessed with the notion of time should feel so interminable.

Part of the difficulty is that, while As You Like It is built for comedy, much of the humor is indecipherable to a twenty-first-century audience. You can tell, as you read, that Rosalind is very witty, but you are totally dependent on the footnotes to understand the content of her wit. Touchstone's routines have a similar handicap. Mendes could have cut the stuff that doesn't come across, or, barring that, he could have kept up the pace and trusted us to understand that "this is funny." But he didn't cut, and the pace dragged, and to get laughs he just layered shtick on top of the jokes in the script. It's much easier, apparently, to take advantage of Stephen Dillane's excellent Bob Dylan impersonation to get an easy laugh than to actually wring meaning from what Jaques sings. Mendes did the same thing with the pastoral scenes in The Winter's Tale last year, and it was similarly distracting.

Stephen Dillane's was the biggest "star" in this year's cast, and he's very good. But the melancholy of his Jaques dragged the whole production down; Mendes seems not to have noticed that the other characters have laughs at Jaques's expense, and justly, as well as the reverse. So instead of a thread tying the play together, and adding ambivalence to its ending, Jaques became a heavy burden on the romance and the wonder of the rest of the play.

The Tempest was even worse: drab, listless, completely lacking in momentum. (It had no intermission, which was not an improvement over the much-too-early intermission of As You Like It. Memo to Mendes: Not breaking for intermission can only prevent the loss of momentum; it can't create it where it never existed!) My friend observed: "It's like they took all the problems of the play, put them on the table, and then said, 'Let's just leave those there.'" What's Miranda's attitude toward Prospero? Affection, fear, awe, anger? How 'bout we just don't decide? I can't explain why critics like Charles Isherwood found anything to praise, unless they're simply grateful that the fifteenth production of The Tempest they've seen this year is so different from the other fourteen.

As it happened, I saw The Tempest in the middle of an actual storm; it had snowed all day, and by the time I got out to Brooklyn the snow was turning to icy sleet. Just getting there was an adventure. And then I went inside to see a play about a storm, and within minutes I wished I'd stayed home. I was so surprised, and so disappointed, by the these two underwhelming productions that I'll think long and hard before I shell out for season three of the Bridge Project. It turns out Sam Mendes and Shakespeare's more difficult plays are just not a promising combination.

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