Despite its popularity, Richard III is far from being one of Shakespeare’s great plays—it is too long (in this production, three and a half hours) and the only meaty role is the eponymous one; I always sympathize with the actress playing Lady Anne, who must begin a scene berating Richard for the murder of her husband and end it his fiancé. Still, it is fun to watch the hunchback, to see him seduce and manipulate and then gleefully take us into his confidence. Like Marlowe’s Barabas, he is one of the few great villains of the theater who admits his immorality, apparently with few misgivings about those he hurts. Instead, he provides us with delightful insight into the ways in which he will exploit others to reach the crown.
Erika Sheffer’s Russian Transport doesn’t quite know what kind of play it wants to be. It begins by straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, setting up jokes that aren’t especially funny and scenarios that are dramatically ambiguous. But the ambiguity feels as if it comes from an unsure or incomplete script, not one that has deliberately employed this technique to great effect.
The stage is marble and the cast appears in dark hooded robes, their faces chalk-white and eyes sunken; the theater feels unusually cold. A young woman slinks around the stage playing the waterphone, creating steely, alienating music, and King Amyclas of Sparta (Philip Goodwin) has a visage so wrinkled and worn that it gives Beckett’s a run for its money. In the prologue, we are told, “The title lends no expectation here / Of apish laughter,” and director Selina Cartmell’s production certainly holds good to that promise: even the blood is black.
Brooke Wyeth (Rachel Griffiths) complains that her family never talks about anything, though you’d never know it from Other Desert Cities, a play so laden with expository monologues and near-endless confessions that it leaves its audience crying out for the subtlety of Neil LaBute. This monster of a production, which runs for over two hours (but feels more like four), hits the ground running, leaving us barely any time to get comfortable before the powder keg goes off—by the time you’ve found your seat, Ms. Griffiths is already dropping the name of the play, a clunker of a trope usually reserved for dramatic climaxes.
In a 1930 introduction to The Philanderer, George Bernard Shaw writes, “There is a disease to which plays as well as men become liable with advancing years. In men it is called doting, in plays dating. The more topical the play the more it dates. The Philanderer suffers from this complaint.” Reading it, one might be inclined to agree with Shaw; though it nicely lampoons both those who pride themselves on being intellectual progressives and the stodgy men who stand in their way, the social problems it addresses are by today fairly trite: is a man’s love more important than his respect? What is women’s place in intellectual society? How is the “Old Guard” to deal with outrageous sexual behavior of the young, turn-of-the-century Londoners? Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s “plays unpleasant,” was revived at the Comedy Theatre in London several years ago and the result was leaden and plodding; those characters’ problems were simply too alien, and director Michael Rudman took no effort to make them relevant today.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., can remember the precise moment when she knew that words would be her life’s work. It is her fifth birthday and she begins to read The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter. She asks her father what “soporific” means, and then is delighted to see his definition realized in the illustration: “The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!” This is a particularly clever scene, since Vivian will go on to become a professor of seventeenth century poetry, with a specialization in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Now, with Stage IV metastatic cancer, she is once again seeing something she knows academically fulfilled in real life—Donne most famously wrote about death and dying. Furthermore, Donne’s most famous sonnet concludes with the line, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.” Vivian’s final encounters with language, then, are looped back to her first.
We’ve all seen the photos. A sign that reads, “Do Drunken Driving.” Another warns, “Slip and Fall Down Carefully.” Or a can labeled, “The Jew’s Ear Juice”—perhaps the most unappetizing beverage on the planet. These comical mistranslations provide the springboard for Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s new play about the failure of language as a means of communication. Much more optimistic than his previous M. Butterfly, it is a sort of mash up of Eugene Ionesco and Hartzell’s Harmony in Conflict: Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), a disgraced Enron executive, tries to internationalize his failing family business, Ohio Signage, by offering high-quality translations for a new cultural center in an up-and-coming Chinese province. He employs Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an English teacher posing as a consultant, to weave through the language and the customs of China, meanwhile falling for the Deputy Minister of Culture, Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim).