Katori Hall begins The Mountaintop by taking a man whose face is plastered all over New York City, a man who is compared to Jesus and Gandhi and who has just biblically bellowed before his final audience, “I’ve seen the Promised Land … Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and presenting this lion as a mere human being. As the curtain rises, he asks his companion Ralph Abernathy to buy him a pack of Pall Malls, urinates in a motel bathroom, and gasps at the stench of his own feet. It is an important point—by deifying King, we undermine his struggle while also excusing ourselves for not living up to his standards—so yes, the sound of his piss hitting the toilet bowl is, in its own way, a progressive beat. Ms. Hall also has fun with dramatic irony, so when he reads something he doesn’t like in an advance copy of the next morning’s paper, mumbling, “Over my dead body,” the audience can Ooh with satisfaction; his occasional, derogatory references to “Jesse” also get a bit of comedic mileage.
Chekhov is one of the most difficult modern playwrights to stage. His writing, like Tennessee Williams’, is incredibly flat on the page–lines like “It’s just six years ago father died, and only a month later our baby brother Grisha drown in the river” read as painfully expository–and thus an incredible burden is placed on his actors. Even the most well-intentioned productions can drag on with stultifying endlessness and many of the highly-touted translations still feel stilted and brittle; one wrongly cast actor, one poorly delivered line and the entire thing shatters. Perhaps because of this, when done right, Chekhov can provide an unmatched theatrical experience, a reminder of why we go to the theater in the first place. The Classical Stage Company’s new production of The Cherry Orchard falls into the latter category.
Walter Pater once wrote, “Shakespeare’s kings are not, nor are meant to be, great men,” something that is deeply understood by director J.R. Sullivan in his new production of Richard II at the Pearl Theatre. Sean McNall, playing the title role, presents both a physically and politically diminutive figure: slim, pale, and sickly looking—a kind of deflated Peter Lorre—this “landlord of England” spends most of the play looking up at actors nearly a head taller than him. His Richard is squeamish, non-committal, and totally incapable of controlling his subjects; as we watch him fight a losing battle to maintain a regal demeanor, we wonder if he ever really wanted to be king in the first place.
Drama about pedagogy tends to follow an insufferable formula: if the professor/high school English teacher/football coach is not used to voice a series of banal platitudes, then he is there to assuage white liberal guilt in some vaguely or explicitly racist way. For that, I would rather open my wrists in a bathtub than have to sit through another god-awful “O Captain! My Captain!” scene again.
Peter Brook, the theater legend who directed the original run of Fragments in London, writes, “Today, with the passage of time, we can see how false were the labels stuck on Beckett—despairing, negative, pessimistic. Indeed, he peers into the filthy abyss of human existence. His humor saves him and us from falling in. He rejects theories, dogmas, that offer pious consolations, yet his life was a constant, aching search for meaning.” This is both succinct and spot-on. It is certainly easy to see why these early, false labels were applied to him—in a key scene in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo furiously booms, “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! … One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second.” Such proclamations make it easy to forget that the relationship at the center of the play—that between Gogo and Didi—is a loving one.
François Truffaut once said of Hitchcock’s movies, “The love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes.” The same could be done with comedy and tragedy in the theater; it would be nice to see Twelfth Night, considering all its darker elements, staged as a tragedy and to see Hamlet, loaded with all that dramatic irony, staged as a comedy. And at first, John Kurzynowski’s Doctor Faustus seems to effectively follow this idea; the eponymous character (played by Matt Carr) is presented as an arrogant self-aggrandizer, someone whose ambitions far outreach his intellect—every time he mispronounces “Württemberg,” for example, his assistant Wagner (Tina Shepard) quickly responds, “Vürttemberg.” There is also an endearing hand-made quality to the production, with angels’ detached wings being flapped by actors standing behind them, recalling the self-conscious theatricality of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Love’s Labor’s Lost is a strikingly knowing play. Centered on four friends who rashly swear off women—only to fall in love, or think they fall in love, almost immediately afterwards—it unfolds with gentle irony, laughingly observing the absurdly narcissistic nature of most romantic tropes. The play closes—like Shakespeare’s later works The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline—on a mixed note; in fact, it is the only one of his comedies besides The Comedy of Errors that does not result in a wedding, and perhaps the only one with a patently unhappy ending. Love’s Labor’s Lost also runs wild with wordplay—Harold Bloom described it as “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.”