Critic’s blog: A theatrical odyssey in Europe

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Well, this theater lover’s been a-globe-trotting, with a combined trip to Madrid (in the middle of an international theater festival) and London (itself an international theater festival), which allowed me to catch some 18 (!) shows in three weeks. (This burst of theater-going activity startles even myself.) I can’t write up blurbs for each and every show—vita brevis, etc.—but here are some reflections, particularly with regards to shows that might make the transfer across the ocean.

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Arguably the most provocative thing I saw in Madrid was Peter Brook’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, here stripped to its essence (some evocative bamboo ‘trees’, some shoe-less singers) and accompanied by a single piano. But while the piano was grand, the production was lean and spare: a journey of the soul on a human scale, as opposed to the bloated multimedia Flutes of many companies. Also impressive was the Australian circus Circa, which was nothing like Barnum—and in fact far, far closer to modern dance, even when it featured new, um, twists on the hula hoop. El Centro Dramático Nacional’s production of Büchner’s Woyzeck chronicled the day in the life of the world’s most unhappy barber (yes, even Sweeney Todd seems sort of sweet when compared to the fever dream of this electric production) while Patrice Thibaud’s Jungles explored—through a combination of mime and vaudeville—the tribulations of a couple who adopt an unruly woodland beast for a child. (This production seemed to me a bit rough around the edges, with a silent film-inspired rescue sequence that hadn’t much to do with the domestic story that enveloped it. On the other hand, it had the best breast-feeding sequence I’ve ever seen on stage, and I’m a connoisseur.)

I wasn’t particularly enamored of Sasha Waltz’s performance piece Körper (“Bodies”), though I respect the intelligence of the company and the choreography. As promised, the piece presented bodies in myriad situations—from sports to medicine to subways—and in all manner of garb (or conspicuous lack thereof). The piece worked best when combining text and movement in innovative ways: the highlight was a sequence that explored the ‘list price’ of body parts for transplant. But much of the evening was derived from Pina Bausch-esque principles of repetition and abstraction, and my patience for that sort of thing ends at about the one-hour mark. The Teatro Real’s production The Marriage of Figaro—with American Nathan Gunn as the Count—was beautifully sung, but unimaginatively staged: standard stuff.

Clearly the worst thing I saw in Madrid—and one of the worst things I’ve seen ever—was the Israeli ensemble Voca People, an a cappella group that seemed to be, on the surface, some sort of hybrid of The Blue Man Group and The Swingle Singers. Instead, it’s a relentlessly dumb evening of nostalgic covers of 1980’s pop songs, along with the longest audience participation sequence I’ve ever endured. (I mean, even for its genre, twenty-five minutes is clearly too long for that sort of thing. Audience participation is already the lowest form of entertainment—when it makes up nearly a third of a production, that’s a big problem.) The conceit of the show is that a group of intergalactic travelers have crashed onto earth, and only by singing American pop songs can they recharge their starship’s batteries. (Honestly, I’m not making this up. The staggering insight of the evening—repeated endlessly—is that “Energy = Life, Life = Energy.” It’s unclear why American popular song is the world’s most potent source of energy. Perhaps a Shoenberg quartet is too unstable?) Besides its terrible, high-school-ish choreography (complete with jazz squares), the evening doesn’t even feature good arrangements: everything is 20 seconds of this and 20 seconds of that, including an exhausting movie medley. I hated this. (Voca People tours to NYC later this month. Please don’t go.)

Fortunately, a trip to London was soon in the air, along with the rest of me. The best thing I saw in London—to my surprise—was Trevor Nunn’s production of Terrence Rattigan’s WWII drama Flare Path, beautifully acted by everybody except Sienna Miller (of G.I. Joe fame, and clearly not yet a stage actress). But since it’s an ensemble piece—and since Miller is playing a vapid starlet—her miscasting didn’t really bother me, and she certainly looks the part of a 1940’s bombshell, playing opposite a marvelous James Purefoy (i.e. Mark Antony in HBO’s Rome). Rattigan’s play—written during the nightly raids of Britain in 1942—isn’t exactly immortal, but its themes are timeless, of the toll of war on the hapless blokes and lasses drafted into its service. Swept away by its beautifully modulated fourth act, even I was moved, and I abhor sentimental weepies.

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My sole musical in London was the oddball Betty Blue Eyes, adapted from Alan Bennett’s cult film A Private Affair. The plot couldn’t be goofier—about a town’s fight over a (transparently delectable) pig during the period of postwar austerity and food rationing. And the first 20 minutes or so are pure cornball British theater—almost pantomine. But there are surprises: Richard Eyre explores the piece’s darker themes—including class struggle, anti-Semitism, and especially the trauma of war—by constantly juxtaposing the pastiche score (by the creators of Honk!) with some surprisingly grim directorial flourishes. (The best moment is a WWII dance hall scene that pivots from exhilaration to desolation in mere moments.) The titular Betty is played by an animatronic pig (totally adorable-- mouth-watering, even) and there’s good work from the leads and ensemble. The whole shebang strikes me as too very British for a Manhattan transfer, but it’s still a fascinating trip through British approaches to the musical, which combines farce, melodrama, and plenty of hoofin’ (by both two legs and four).

Many of the plays I saw were classics—because, I suppose, nobody mounts a British classic better than the British. The Globe’s All’s Well That End’s Well—in period dress and with few set pieces—was superbly acted (and I suppose that’s really all that good Shakespeare needs: good Shakespearean actors). An eccentric production of Pygmalion—by director and designer Philip Prowse—featured Rupert Everett as surprisingly sexy Professor Higgins, though his very charisma made his interest in Eliza seem rather less than purely academic, which threw the play’s argument off-kilter. Dominic West—best known to Americans as Detective McNulty from The Wire—just opened as Butley, Simon Gray’s barbed satire of the world’s saddest professor. (It’s actually an interesting play—I’d sort of been avoiding it, but unnecessarily. And West has got marvelous stage skills.)

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And the worst of London? Sad to say, that dubious honor goes to an American. Neil LaBute’s In A Forest, Dark and Deep shows this terribly uneven playwright at his worst: a tedious two-hander that purports to explore the lengths to which women—and men—will go to hide The Truth, in this case about a professor’s relationship with an undergraduate. But two-handers only work if both characters swap revelations (such as in Harrower’s Blackbird, most recently at AtticRep): in this forest, only Olivia Williams’ distraught professor has anything interesting to disclose. This leaves her brother—played in tough guy fashion by Matthew Fox (yes, the hunky Jack Shepherd of Lost, and looking a bit lost on stage)—playing the part of Columbo (that’s even a joke in the play). It occurs to me that one could excise the part of Fox and just turn the whole play into a 35-minute monologue for Williams. The play wouldn’t necessarily be better, but at least it would be shorter. Let’s hope that LaBute—whose Tony-nominated reasons to be pretty runs circles around this effort—is back to form soon.

-Thomas “I’ll See Famous TV Stars in Anything” Jenkins, Current theater critic.

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