Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Like the Weather

You know the climate is fucked when you fly into New York during a rainstorm unlike any you've seen in the Pacific Northwest for quite some time and when you return to Vancouver to find the city blanketed in snow and temperatures well below freezing. We received another 30 centimeters on Sunday night, and more is expected:

Pretty, yes, and no doubt good for Olympics-related optics, but frankly the novelty has long passed. Were it not for my manic neighbour and her visiting, prairie-raised father--who attack snow shoveling like it's a competitive sport--my back would have given out long ago. Of course, rain is now in the long term forecast, which will turn the entire city into one huge puddle.

New York was a great success, starting with the ostensible reason for the visit: research at the New York Public Library's Performing Arts Division at Lincoln Center. I was specifically interested in combing through the extensive video and DVD collection of the Jerome Robbins Dance Archives in connection with an ongoing project on solo performance and sexual citizenship in the United States. I can't tell you how impressed I was with the system they have in place there. Once you negotiate your way through all the construction hoarding around Lincoln Center, find the entrance to the Library, make your way to the third floor, obtain your Access Card, and hand in your viewing requests (up to three at a time) to the librarian at the desk, you are then directed to a nearby television monitor and computer. No waiting for the physical object itself; rather, an unseen technician cues your requests remotely, and when they're ready, a message appears on the computer screen directing you to press play. The video then appears on the adjacent TV screen; you can fast forward, rewind, pause, etc, all via the computer and its mouse, and if for some reason something goes wrong, or the wrong video appears, you can send an instant message to the technician, who will fix the problem almost instantaneously (as was the case with me when the performance of Ron Brown's "Forgiveness" [1988] I was watching was interrupted by a master class on Shakespearean acting). Even this momentary ghost in the machine (no, it wasn't Hamlet) was instructive, and the whole day I spent there left me intellectually re-energized about a project I was considering abandoning.

Then there was the theatre. I list the performances in the order of their viewing:

1. Arias with a Twist (Friday, December 12): Downtown drag diva Joey and master puppeteer Basil in a collaboration that's truly inspired and wonderfully inappropriate (much physical and verbal innuendo around Joey's horse-haired wireless microphone). The show is loosely structured around an alien-in-the-wilderness theme, with an opening number that sees Joey, in Crawfordesque bangs and lipstick, and wearing a fetish corset, probed by space aliens, before being sent back to an especially fecund version of the "garden of earthly delights" (interestingly, a much-praised restaging of Martha Clarke's dance theatre piece of the same name, based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting, was taking place at the nearby Minetta Lane Theatre), and eventually making his way--via mise-en-scène and choreographic references to Godzilla and Busby Berkeley--to New York's gay village and the stage of the Here Arts Center. That stage is notably intimate, and the 6-foot plus Joey looms large in front of the audience; I loved that his in-between show patter was so transparently salacious, and that he performed it with such self-delighting whimsy (there were several moments when he cracked himself up). And then there's the singing voice, from the uncanny channeling of Billie Holiday to the digitally modulated rock opera opening and the power ballads that just wouldn't quit. Twist, who both designed and directed the show, is a genius, conjuring fantastical dreamscapes out of fabric, cardboard, and string, and choreographing a memorable number for Joey and two life-size alien go-go dancers. The production was also notable for its canny use of video projections and a transparent scrim, a feature of a number of other fall NY stagings, according to Joanna, who accompanied Richard and I to the show.

Digression: Joanna completed her MA under my direction several years ago, and is currently writing her Ph.D. thesis on the work of Paula Vogel at CUNY's Graduate Center. Joanna is my lifeline to the New York theatre scene (she sees a show a week, on average), and whenever we travel to the city we try to hook up, either for dinner or a show, or--as in this case--both (great meal beforehand at Smith's on Macdougal Street). Just prior to our visit, Joanna had traveled to New Haven to see the premiere of Vogel's latest play/musical pageant, A Civil War Christmas, at the Long Wharf Theatre, under the direction of Tina Landau. (Vogel recently moved to Yale from Brown--where she had a long and fruitful association with the Trinity Rep Theatre--in order to chair the Playwriting Program at the Yale School of Drama.) By Joanna's account, the play was a great success, and according to Vogel it will ideally be remounted at venues across the country every December for years to come, supplanting Dickens in audiences' imaginations about the ghosts of American Christmases past. (Digression upon digression: Basil Twist also did the traditional bunraku puppetry for Vogel's previous play, A Long Christmas Ride Home [2003]--one senses a bit of an obsession here on the playwright's part.)

2. Road Show (Saturday, December 13): Joanna strongly recommended Sondheim's latest musical--variously known as Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce during its long and bumpy creative gestation--and with John Doyle directing (Richard and I had seen and greatly admired both of his recent stripped-down, actors-doubling-as-musicians, productions of Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway), and the always excellent and eminently watchable Michael Cerveris starring as the less prodigal of the two Mizner brothers, Willy, we needed no further encouragement. I gather from critics who have seen earlier versions of the show that this latest incarnation is darker and less vaudevillian. Given the current economic climate, the collapse of the American housing market, and the almost daily newspaper accounts of financial fraud on Wall Street (the Madoff story broke while we were in NYC), it is certainly hard not to read the play--which begins with the brothers seeking their fortune in the gold mines of Alaska and ends with them losing it through shady real estate speculation in Florida--as a cautionary tale about unbridled greed. This is reinforced in Doyle's staging by the currency-clad ensemble's matching costumes, and by the repeated Brechtian gestus of throwing wads of fake cash into the audience (for an insightful analysis of other Brechtian elements of the play highlighted by Doyle, see Jill Dolan's review on her Feminist Spectator blog). Still, I found the play to be filled with wonderful moments of (black) humour, as well as lots of genuine affection between the two brothers (another Sondheim/Doyle stalwart, Alexander Gemignani, plays the architect, Addison Mizner, to whom we owe many the pleasure palaces in present-day Palm Beach, and whose ambition to turn Boca Raton into the Venice of Florida was thwarted--or abetted?--by brother Willy's innate huksterism--note to self: find reliable biography of these two characters). Even more revelatory to this audience member, however, is that Road Show features the first open same-sex couple in the Sondheim oeuvre, with Addison's relationship with the impressionable young Hollis Bessemer (a charming, and charmingly named, Claybourne Elder) occupying a central part of the narrative. The love song that Addison and Hollis sing to each other, "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," is as moving as "Somewhere," from West Side Story, and deserves to become equally classic.

Added bonus: Marian Seldes was sitting in the row in front of us! Richard and I had seen her years ago at the Promenade Theater in Albee's Three Tall Women, and most recently in a small but memorable role in the Richard Jenkins film The Visitor. A thrill to be so close to such an acting legend.

3. August: Osage County (Sunday, December 14): Tracey Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winner was the only Broadway entertainment we indulged in on this trip (not for lack of trying--Richard was keen to see Bartlett Sher's acclaimed remounting of South Pacific, but I couldn't get advance tickets, and didn't want to line up for returns). Though not without its problems, and desperately in need of an edit (we could have done without the incest theme between Ivy and Little Charles, in my opinion), it was nice to see--especially given my comments in recent blog posts--a classic large-cast, three-act play on Broadway, one that for the most part successfully updates (and regenders) O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night for the Prozac/Vicodin age, and that marries sharp writing to split-second physical timing. Estelle Parsons, taking over from Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan was riveting in the central role of the matriarch from hell, Violet Weston. That she has the stamina at her age (she must be over 80, though she certainly doesn't look it) to perform such an emotionally and physically taxing role 8 times a week is simply amazing.

Sidebar comment: we attended a weekend matinee performance, and the theatre (the relatively intimate Music Box on West 45th) was only three-quarters full. While in New York, we read of several prominent Broadway plays (including popular musicals like Gypsy and Hairspray, with Harvey Fierstein newly returned to the cast as Edna Turnblad) announcing plans to close early. Clearly the economic downturn is already having an effect on box office returns.

4. Blasted (Tuesday, December 16): Our final outing was to see the New York premiere of Sarah Kane's debut play at the Soho Rep. This was the hot ticket of the fall theatre season, and it was interesting to see people lined up around the block for possible returns to a play that features explicit and prolonged depictions of rape, extreme physical violence, and multiple forms of cannibalism. Much has been made of how long it has taken the play to get to New York (it premiered in 1995 at the Royal Court), but when one thinks of the baggage that comes with it--its notorious excoriation by outraged London critics, Kane's subsequent suicide in 1999 after cranking out four more eviscerating works of drama, and its critical reevaluation as a moral allegory of contemporary Western responses to reports of atrocities during the Bosnian War--one can perhaps understand why a director or company might start to second guess the reasons it merits staging. Then, too, there are the demands Blasted places upon its actors, with every physical brutality and indignity performed by them or visited upon them demanding a concomitant expenditure of emotional energy and longing. For all Ian's (a devastating and fearless Reed Birney) inherent misogyny and brutish insistence that Cate (Marin Ireland) suck him off, there is a part of him--the part that is actually terrified of the mortality he so casually scoffs at--that desperately needs to believe a deeper, even romantic, connection exists between them. The hotel room, the champagne, in this regard, are at once tawdry and powerfully mournful emblems of his (misplaced?) desire. Likewise, the long and incredibly realistic rape of Ian by the Soldier (Louis Cancelmi) is all the more painful to watch because of what the Soldier's tears betray about his own recognition of the thrall of bodily connection to which what he has witnessed in war has paradoxically reduced him, and about his need to share that corporeal vulnerability with Ian, even at the extreme price of assault. (Again, see Jill Dolan's brilliant assessment of the production over at her Feminist Spectator blog for more on this.)

To say that Kane blasts the lid off bourgeois dramatic realism (quite literally in the case of the explosion at the end of Scene 2 that tears the hotel room apart--kudos to Louisa Thompson for pulling off this incredible feat of design magic) is an understatement. We're deep in Artaud territory here (by way of Sophocles, Beckett, Pinter, Sartre, and others--Kane's first play clearly betrays its dramatic genealogy), and there is no escape from the assault on our senses and psyches. The single-access, tiered row seating at the Soho Rep doesn't make things any easier in this regard. One woman in the row in front of us was clearly desperate to leave, to the point of contemplating, I could tell, whether or not she could squeeze under the balustrade on her right. She couldn't, any more than Ian, in crawling underneath the hotel room's floorboards and in beside the dead baby's body from which he has just eaten, could will himself to die. 

Both had to wait to be cleansed by rain.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Re my comments on the ending of Now or Later: it's actually the mother character who interrupts the fight between father and son. The phone call from the psychiatrist (prompted, again, by the mother) comes later, resulting in the main character, John's, acquiescence to the will of the political machine now surrounding his father, the president-elect.

Hopefully the titles to future posts will start sounding a lot less editorial.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


I should clarify some of what I wrote at the end of the last post, which was composed in haste. In particular, I want to point out that I am not condemning the one-act play, wholesale, as a genre. Rather, I am suggesting that the contemporary one-act seems to have become a convenient economic expediency for playwrights and producers struggling to attract audiences raised on the 90-100 minute narrative film format. For the same reason it's increasingly rare to see new large-cast plays (too much money), financial backers of new work are loath to tax the patience (and attention spans) of their audiences by asking them to set aside three hours of their time to sit through as many acts and accompanying intermissions (where they'll be tempted to spend more money at the bar). To say nothing of the complexity (and expense) of having to squeeze dinner in before or after. The whole ritual of a languorous night out at the theatre has given way to something far more martialled in terms of time and expense. (The exception remains the big-budget Broadway musical, although I note that The Drowsy Chaperone was a compact, tight, and intermissionless 100 minutes--Man in Chair even goes so far as to forestall what might be most audience members' surprise at this by commenting that as a playgoer he himself disdains intermissions because they break the magical spell of the world created on stage with that mundane social reality he's always railing against.)  

The problem, as I see it, is that form necessarily affects content here, and in the contemporary one-act play I see a similar attempt to martial complex ideas, histories and moral questions into a conveniently digestible form. This is particularly true of the socially realist one-act play, the kind of work that attempts to wed topicality (sex, religion, politics) and naturalist acting to the slick pacing and crisply designed mise-en-scene familiar from television and film. In other words, Ibsen and Chekhov-lite (and I think it's significant, in this regard, that the recent, apparently anomalous success that was Tom Stoppard's large-cast, multi-part theatrical extravaganza, The Coast of Utopia, was set in Russia during the 19th century). 

This points, as well, to the fact that the modern one-act, as perfected by Beckett and Albee and Pinter, for example, lends itself far better to abstraction and allegory than to explication and literal representation. One thinks here of the recent success enjoyed by Caryl Churchill with Far Away and A Number. With these playwrights, working outside the constraints of realism, temporality conforms to the needs and form of theatrical expression rather than the other way around (some of these plays are only a few minutes long, after all). By contrast, one gets the sense that Shanley in Doubt (see today's New York Times for an interview with Shanley on the film version of his play) and Morgan in Frost/Nixon and Shinn in Now or Later started with the clock set at 90 minutes, and then worked to fit the idea of--and the ideas in--their plays into that time limit. With Shinn it's actually closer to 70 minutes, and his Oedipal drama about presidential politics, family dysfunction, and conflicting sexual and religious ideologies, actually relies on a clunky deus ex machina device (a call from the son's psychiatrist just as he's being strangled by his father, no less) to bring abruptly to a close what could have easily extended into full-scale Sophoclean exegesis. 

That's what we get in spades in Granville Barker's Waste, which over the course of its four acts reveals that one can be politically topical without sacrificing the subtleties of dramatic structure as they contribute to a play's meaning. Indeed, there is still something to be said for what one can accomplish, as a modern-day director, by employing that old-fashioned lowering of a curtain (or more often now a blackout) not just as a tactical expediency to signal a temporal/spatial shift in the world of the play, but also to symbolically foreground (and historicize) the various ideologies circumscribing that world. Thus it was that in the Almeida production directed by Samuel West this past October the play's gender politics were telescoped wonderfully by having Act 1 open upon the drawing room of Lady Julia Farrant's country house, around which the women of the play are variously assembled (all seated) listening to Lady Julia play the piano before speculating on how best to convince Frances Trebell to likewise convince her brother, Henry, a well-regarded independent MP, to join Cyril Horsham's Conservative government and see through the plan for disestablishing Church and State. Following the interval, Act 3, by contrast, opens upon Horsham's London house, with Cyril's cabinet assembled to discuss how to dump Henry following revelations that the married woman with whom he was having an affair, Amy O'Connell, died while seeking an illegal abortion. In this scene the men are all standing and the piano top is pointedly closed.

I'm not sure what my point is beyond lamenting, perhaps somewhat old-fashionedly myself, the seeming death of the well-made play. But I do think the trend towards the realist one-act speaks to a larger structural crisis within the theatre today.

Okay, now that I've wrapped that thread up, a final comment on Risk from last night. It wasn't perfect--Barton tried a bit too hard to telegraph the narrative through-line of her piece and the shifting relationships between her character-dancers. And in trying to choreograph to the individual strengths of those dancers (which are manifold, but also manifoldly different), there was at times a lack of coherence in the movement, an arbitrariness in those movements and sequences which were repeated, and a resorting too often to unstructured improvisation to fill the dead space between sequences. That said, the dancing was top notch (to be expected with Barton, Josh Martin, and Josh Beamish in the cast), and individual sections (especially the pas de deux between Barton and Martin) were spellbinding. I welcome the addition of The Response to the ranks of Vancouver's dance companies (especially given the uncertain future of Ballet BC), and look forward to Barton's next creation with great anticipation.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Political Theatre (and Theatre Politics)

I had initially intended, with this post, to focus on more explicitly performance-related (i.e., theatre-related) topics, but it's been two weeks of high drama on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and so politics once again intrudes.

As any sentient being in the country well knows, Canadians have just passed through a constitutional crisis unprecedented in our history, one that has unfortunately resulted in an even bigger, and potentially more dangerous, procedural precedent being set, and that has seen Prime Minister Stephen Harper narrowly--and temporarily--retain power in a manner that, to turn his own language back upon him, is an egregious affront to democracy. 

It all started with a high-stakes game of political brinksmanship following the passing of the minority Conservative government's throne speech less than a month ago. Despite a chastened Harper's professed statement that his party would adopt a new spirit of cooperation in the House of Commons following his failure to win a desperately sought after majority in last October's election, the week after the throne speech (which the other parties voted to support), Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered an economic update that bore all the classic hallmarks of the PMO's mean-spirited, hit-them-when-they're-down approach to politics. Specifically, the Conservatives, in addition to fudging the numbers to make it look like Canada actually was heading into a potentially debilitating global recession with a small surplus rather than needing to worry just yet about deficit spending on infrastructure in order to stimulate the economy, proposed as one of their cost-cutting measures the elimination of public-financing for federal political parties. This financing, brought in by the Liberals under Jean Chretien, is based on a formula that sees all registered parties fielding federal candidates receiving a percentage of taxpayers' money based on the number of votes they captured in the last election. The Conservatives have the highest percentage of private and corporate donations among any of the major parties, and so don't really need the additional public financing. But the Liberals, still struggling to pay off lingering debt following a series of costly leadership contests, and having seen their fundraising abilities plummet alongside their approval ratings, very much need this money to remain competitive in any upcoming election. Ditto the NDP and the Greens, who especially as smaller, more-left of centre parties that appeal to an electoral base that doesn't have as deep pockets as the core Conservative constituency, rely on this money to field candidates and run ads and pay staff and criss-cross the largest country on the planet. With the Bloc Quebecois things are a bit more complicated, because as a party that campaigns solely in one province, they are less beholden on money to cover major travel expenses etc. No doubt Harper was counting on public outrage at the BQ, a party committed to the breakup of the country in his lingo, receiving taxpayers money at all (more on Harper's BQ-bashing in a bit).

As I mentioned earlier, this is classic Harper political strategy: basically, use every opportunity you get to crush your opponents into the ground. But the would-be autocrat's mistake was that he forgot he didn't have a majority. No doubt he was relying on the fact that the Liberals, with a lame-duck leader, Stephane Dion, who had led his party to its worst electoral showing in several decades, and a convention to choose his replacement not scheduled till May 2009, would cave once again, and he would get his way, thereby ensuring Conservative party dominance for some time to come. But this time the Liberals didn't blink, and neither did the NDP or the Bloc. Instead, they got together and formed a Liberal-NDP coalition, with Bloc support, and declared their intention of bringing down the government in a non-confidence vote on Flaherty's economic update. 

While coalition governments in Canada, unlike in many European parliamentary systems, are rare, they are not unprecedented. And this proposed coalition was counting on the fact that, the country having so recently been to the polls, this parliamentary session being so young, and with no perceived direction regarding the economy, the Governor-General would seriously consider calling on them to form a government rather than acceding to Harper's likely wish for her to dissolve parliament and call another election. Time for the Conservatives to blink.

And blink they did, quickly postponing by a week the confidence vote, and withdrawing from what was to be voted on the controversial removal of public party financing, as well as another bone of contention for the opposition parties, the removal of the right to strike by public sector employees. They also agreed to move up the date of a proposed budget that would see a major economic stimulus package. But the coalition was not backing down, and with everyone apparently (and fatally, as it turned out) rallied behind the resurrected Dion as replacement Prime Minister, it was time for Harper to really sweat.

Which brings us to the truly appalling part of this mess. For, when Harper is cornered it is not his habit to show any humility or adopt a statesmanlike persona and own up to his mistakes; instead, he goes on the attack, in this case accusing the "unelected" coalition (somebody voted for them) of trying to hijack leadership of the government undemocratically, a desperate power grab that sees the Liberals willing, in these trying economic times (suddenly we go from a surplus to utter doom), to get into bed with "socialists" and "separatists." All of this was a lie, of course; a parliamentary system is all about having a viable opposition, and our constitution allows for another party or parties to have the opportunity to form a government (at the G-G's discretion) should the governing party lose the confidence of the House. And the Bloc were not part of the coalition, but rather agreed to support it for a fixed period of time. (Indeed, Harper and the Conservatives had themselves previously strategized about working with the Bloc to defeat Paul Martin's minority liberal government back in 2005.) But Harper has a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth, and appealing instead to the emotions of his core base, most of whom fastened on to the Dion-Bloc alliance as anathema. 

With a media blitz ensuring that public support (especially in the west) was firmly behind him, Harper then played the only card left to him, choosing to run away from the fight rather than face the consequences of a loss of confidence in the House. Specifically, he asked the GG to prorogue, or temporarily suspend, parliament until January 26th, at which time a new throne speech would introduce a new budget. Constitutional experts weighed in on all sides, many saying that the GG, Michaelle Jean, shouldn't grant the request, as it sets that dangerous precedent that I mentioned at the outset of this post--what's to prevent all future governments from doing the same? Just shutting down the House because you might lose a vote is about as undemocratic as things get, Mr. Harper. At the same time, the GG was in an impossible situation, especially as a Liberal appointee from Quebec with a husband whom many accuse of having his own separatist ties. To defy Harper's wishes, and to go against public opinion would have opened her up to accusations of political interference, and potentially have lead to an even greater crisis. Still, the word is that Jean made Harper work for his request (he met with her for more than 2 hours).

Then, too, Harper could it seems count on the cracks within the coalition starting to form, and above all on the well-meaning but unfortunately grossly incompetent and inept Dion screwing up. Which he did royally (no pun intended, Madame GG) with his televised address to the nation trying to explain why a coalition was a viable option. Dion, who has never been the most articulate of politicians at the best of times (especially in English), forgot Marshall McLuhan's cardinal rule, that the medium is the message. In short, he was done in by poor production values, with an amateurishly cropped and out-of-focus 5-minute clip that arrived late to broadcast networks, and without a separate French-language version (in the end, they dubbed his voice).

And so we do find our way back to the performative after all, although this is hardly my preferred kind of political theatre. Nevertheless, the curtain has dropped for now, and Harper will get his second act. I predict that before that the coalition and the Liberals in particular will have their own entracte/contretemps, perhaps a little something from Julius Caesar, with the dump-Dion-sooner-rather-than-later chorus growing steadily and a leadership vote moved up from May. I suspect whoever wins that vote (Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae) will quickly rethink the viability of the coalition, especially if he wants to seriously challenge the Conservatives in the next election. Which now Harper will be more emboldened to seek, based on the latest poll numbers. And while I refuse to cast him as the tragic hero in all of this, the one potential upside is that in classic hubristic fashion Harper may have forever scuttled his chances of achieving a majority by so alienating Quebeckers with his anti-separatist rhetoric (they themselves go to the polls provincially on Monday, and while there was initial fear that the Parti Quebecois would benefit from Harper's trash-talking, it appears Jean Charest's Liberals will win a third straight term, possibly a majority). The problem is that there's as much hubris on the other side and, as they did during the last leadership review that disastrously elected Dion as a compromise candidate, Ignatieff and Rae might, in refusing to put aside their enormous egos, further imperil their party. Et tu Brute?

Amidst all this madness, and despite Richard and my difficulty in tearing ourselves away from Peter Mansbridge and the sexy talking heads on the "At Issue" panel of the nightly newscast of CBC's The National, there has been some time for theatre. Most recently we went to see The Drowsy Chaperone, the Bob Martin/Don McKellar/Lisa Lambert/Greg Morrison musical that began as an improvised vignette at Martin's stag party in Toronto and eventually made its way to Broadway, where it won Tonys for Best Book and Best Original Score (though, oddly, given these awards, not Best Musical--that went to The Jersey Boys), among several others, in 2006--yet more evidence of stealth Canadians taking over the US's entertainment industry (you can have Celine Dion). It's a delightful bagatelle of a show-within-a-show, at once an affectionate parody of and homage to classic American musicals of the 20s and 30s, all presided over by the endearing Man in Chair, a show tune fanatic who prefers the wacky but predictable course of true love in musicals to the mundane, troubling reality of daily life. Jay Brazeau gave a wonderful performance as Man in Chair, and this production at the Vancouver Playhouse (the first independent production to be licensed post-Broadway and the ensuing national tour) was exuberantly and imaginatively staged. This was also Max Reimer's first production since assuming the helm at the Playhouse from Glynis Leyshon, and although he's a money-conscious populist, his work here (he directed as well) gives me hope that the institution might turn its programming around. 

It also confirms my opinion that Leyshon has been a major problem in terms of what I and others have bemoaned as poor programming at the Playhouse over the past several years. The first production of this season, for example, was her last (she and Reimer overlapped), and though Frost/Nixon came with the same impressive Broadway and Tony-winning pedigree as Drowsy, in this case the results were a disaster. Though, to be fair, it wasn't all Leyshon's fault. Her star, Len Cariou (of the original Sweeney Todd fame), was all over the place in his performance as Nixon, including dropping several lines, and the play itself is structurally very weak, relying on a clunky narrator/expositor device (for the politically amnesiac, I guess), and failing to exploit the full dramatic potential from its central David and Goliath conceit. Building up to the final payoff of Nixon's admission of guilt is one too-long tease, and when the moment does come, it's over in a manner of seconds. Perhaps with a titan like Frank Langella in the lead role this would all work, but my suspicion is that first-time playwright Peter Morgan (screenwriter of The Queen, with Helen Mirren) is more comfortable in the television and film idioms. So perhaps the just-released Ron Howard movie version is worth watching for comparison.

But, to allude to a point I raised in an earlier post that I have yet to explore more fully, I think there is a larger structural crisis at work here in the one-act play as a genre. I was also disappointed with the Arts Club production of Doubt back in September/October, and could not understand why it had received the Pulitzer for John Patrick Shanley. The idea is a good one, and the did-he-or-didn't he question at the core keeps us guessing, but there seems to me to be a failure of will in Shanley's unwillingness to explore the questions he raises about religion, sexuality and race, let along faith and doubt, to their full potential. And the lead character of the head nun is too broadly drawn, leading to scenery chewing. That's what happened with Gabrielle Rose in the production I saw. And, to judge from what I've seen of the upcoming movie preview (also directed by Shanley), that's what's on offer in Meryl Streep's performance as well.

Again, there's more to say here, and hopefully I'll continue this discussion in future posts (and get back to Christopher Shinn and Harley Granville Barker as well). But for now I must sign off--Amber Funk Barton and her new company, The Response, are performing her first full-length dance work, Risk, at the Firehall Arts Centre tonight, and Richard and I have tickets. Then it's off to New York next week for research at the NYPL (wink, wink) and theatre-going aplenty. A full report when I return.