You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author ) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, has not aged well. Brecht himself never saw a production of his allegory about the rise of German National Socialism, and what improvements he might have made in rehearsal cannot be known, but John Doyle’s version at Classic Stage Company seems a heavier slog than usual for a play already rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.
Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen into a musical, Carmen Jones, is rarely staged, so the revival at Classic Stage Company production is a happy resurrection of his 1943 effort. Nonetheless, although it is gloriously sung, the 90-minute production doesn’t make a case that Hammerstein’s musical theater version is the equal of Bizet’s opera. It’s never going to be in the standard repertory.
It’s some feast that Terrence McNally has cooked up for Douglas Hodge, fulminating and relishing every minute as the tortured, torturing ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Fire and Air, a premiere at Classic Stage Company. McNally has always been fond of larger-than-life personalities gesticulating wildly and playing to the wings—think Master Class, The Lisbon Traviata, It’s Only a Play. He has often toiled in the opera realm, addicted to its outsize theatricality and the strong feelings its fans and its creators harbor. With Fire and Air he switches to ballet, specifically the Ballets Russes on the eve of revolution—an art where those qualities also abound. The author is 79, he has written plays for more than half a century, and Fire and Air is vintage McNally.
The Fiasco Theater production of Twelfth Night is energetic, clearly spoken and firmly middle-of-the-road. The company, with standard members, must try to cast every actor in a part, even if the requirements are slightly off. In Shakespeare’s story of twins, a brother and sister, who are shipwrecked in a foreign country, Illyria, where they have amorous mix-ups before they are reunited, an audience may notice that Emily Young’s slender Viola bears little resemblance to Javier Ignacio’s chunkier Sebastian, apart from wearing glasses and a ribbed, russet sweater, though it’s unlikely that will spoil one’s enjoyment.
Classic Stage Company’s production of As You Like It is the latest act in Artistic Director John Doyle’s personal project to revivify the classics by whittling them down to their fundamentals. As with his CSC staging of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures earlier this year, Doyle has slashed the text to its barest of bones and reduced scenic demands to a few plucky strokes. The approach neutered Pacific Overtures, but has made Shakespeare’s breeziest, most joyful romantic comedy even breezier.
Dead Poets Society, a new play written by Tom Schulman, the screenwriter for the 1989 film that starred Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, is a deft, engaging stage version superbly directed by John Doyle for his first production as the artistic director of Classic Stage Company. The story, set in 1959 in a boys’ prep school, Welton Academy, follows a half dozen young men whose lives are affected by John Keating, an English professor. Keating is the kind of teacher who believably inspires his students and urges them to think for themselves rather than unquestioningly follow the rules adults have set out. In its way, Dead Poets Society is a veiled attack on the dangers of fascism that resonates particularly since the election.
John Doyle has made a name for himself with pared-down productions, mainly of musicals—The Color Purple, now on Broadway; Passion and Allegro for Classic Stage Company—and his first foray into traditional plays for CSC, where he is the new artistic director, features that trademark minimalism. Peer Gynt, written in verse and covering a lifetime of its hero, who wanders from Norway’s fjords to the deserts of Arabia to find himself, is an epic journey.
Ibsen wrote his eventful play in 1867 but did not intend it for performance. After a change of heart, he asked his countryman Edvard Grieg to compose music for a theatrical premiere in 1876. Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, which grew out of his incidental music, is one of the most lushly Romantic pieces of music of the 19th century. Here, though, Dan Moses’ Schreier’s music features a couple violins that often drone long notes and underscore scenes, and choral writing that features humming by the six actors playing all the subsidiary parts.
The role of Peer Gynt itself stands as an Everest for an actor, yet it comes around far more rarely than Hamlet. Richard Thomas tackled it brilliantly in Hartford in 1989, under the direction of Mark Lamos. Thomas, plagued by boyish looks long after his years as John-Boy Walton, made the most of them in Peer Gynt and convincingly played the young Peer, while assuming the mantle of the older man easily.
At CSC, Doyle has cast Gabriel Ebert, a Tony winner for Matilda, and he’s the best thing about the production. Ebert conveys the young Peer with high-kicking brio and excess of energy, yet in the quieter scenes his maturity comes to the fore. It’s possible to have two actors play the part, but, reduced to less than two hours from four, this adaptation needs only one. The climax of Peer’s long search for his soul—which society claims he lacks—results in his peeling an onion for meaning, and finding nothing in the center. Ebert claws at it and pulls at it with his fingernails, his eyes reddened by the onion fumes, but with more a determined curiosity than desperation.
Peer is notorious for his tall tales. Returning home from wandering, he tells his mother Åse (Becky Ann Baker) that he has hunted a stag into the wilderness, wounded it, and then, about to kill it, been taken on a wild ride by the injured animal. Åse doesn’t believe him and rebukes him, but then comes around.
Even apart from his imaginary experiences, though, Peer’s life is chock full of incident. Åse tells Peer that his girlfriend is about to be married. Peer crashes the wedding and steals her away. He also meets Solveig (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a young girl—she’s recently been confirmed, so she must be about 14—who falls for him. Then he flees the fury of the bride’s father; he arrives at the lair of the Troll King (Dylan Baker), seduces his daughter, escapes becoming a denizen of the underground, and begins a lifelong journey to distant lands, ending up finally in Norway again.
Doyle’s adaptation touches on most of the events, but it makes them more real. The cue for this approach seems to come when the Bride says, “That’s the way—we mountain people. Everything has another meaning.” Yet the change pulls Ibsen’s play toward the naturalism that characterized his later work, and and even psychological realism, as Peer's struggles seem to become internalized. At times it underscores Peer’s search for himself with heavy-handedness. “Jack, be thyself,” says the Doctor, who is also the Troll King, clad by Ann Hould-Ward in a gray suit, paper crown and sunglasses. Later in the play, Peer becomes a successful businessman, entering in suit and sunglasses himself, and throws money into the air. It may suggest that in his pursuit of success Peer has become more troll-like, but it's also one of the few grand flourishes in the production. Characters like the Boyg, offering “Go round” as strange advice, don’t appear but are rendered as voices of the Chorus.
Although Doyle’s minimalist, modernist approach may force one to focus on the words, the loss of color and variety risks dulling one's senses and resulting in confusion. To anyone who has experienced a full production, this Peer Gynt seems intent on sensory deprivation.
John Doyle's production of Peer Gynt plays at the Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th. St., between Third and Fourth Avenues) through June 19. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (212) 352-3101, Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visiting classicstage.org.
When it first appeared in 1947, Allegro was clearly a departure from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s earlier shows, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945). Influenced by Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town (1938), Rodgers and Hammerstein intended it to be staged experimentally—without scenery and employing a Greek chorus. (Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Hammerstein, was a gofer on Allegro, and he has attributed his willingness to experiment in his own works to the experience he had on his mentor’s show.) The simple plot—the life of a doctor from birth to age 35—seemed appropriate for a pared-down approach. But the musical flopped.
Still, Allegro is one of those fascinating footnotes that one hopes deserves another chance with the right director. John Doyle, who is at the helm of the current revival at the Classic Stage Company, employs his signature style for it—performers also play the instruments. That fits in nicely with a production that still has the choral commentary and still feels unsettlingly weird coming from the team known for their intensely romantic stories—their next show was South Pacific (1949). Doyle also cuts the show to 90 minutes with no intermission, and it helps.
The show’s major drawbacks remain, however. One is its cinematic quality: it’s a series of snapshots in the life of its hero, Joseph Taylor Jr. It begins with the grown, dressed Claybourne Elder as the infant Joe Jr. sitting next to his mother (Jessica Tyler Wright) with his head on her lap, Pietà-like. Elder manages to capture the innocence of a newborn in the lovely scene. As the book jump-cuts to further episodes in Joe’s life, the chorus comments: Joe learns to walk (in the terrific song “One Foot, Other Foot”), loses his Grandma (an affecting Alma Cuervo) and makes friends in school, notably Jenny Brinker (Elizabeth A. Davis). She is his first love, and eventually she becomes his wife, but Jenny’s father is rich, and he wants her to marry someone with a moneyed future. Though Joe idolizes Joe Sr. (Malcolm Gets) and his small-town, hands-on practice, Jenny steers Joe toward wealthy patients and the big city (Chicago).
That is the second problem. Elder, good as he is, can’t bring excitement to the meek Joe, who never really seems his own man—he’s manipulated by Jenny and others. As his loyal nurse, Emily (Jane Pfitsch), sings in the show’s best-known song, “The Gentleman Is a Dope.”
When Allegro opened, some critics read it as an attack on the wealthy. Hammerstein, who had also written the book, complained that it was being misunderstood, that it was instead a critique of the distractions of big-city life. But a show with a song titled “Money Isn’t Everything” inevitably lacks nuance. Stephen Sondheim, in his book Finishing the Hat, is savvy about the shortcomings of some of his mentor’s lyrics—notably the redundancy in the title song: “Brisk, lively, merry and bright/Allegro.” (That Hammerstein tendency to hammer away is more obvious in another song, “Ya-ta-ta”: “Broccoli, hogwash, balderdash/Phoney baloney, tripe and trash!”)
Near the end, when Joe protests his boss’s dismissal of a lifelong nurse because she has supported union activism in the hospital, the boss (Randy Redd) pays him no mind: “Ah, my boy, but there’s such a thing as discipline—loyalty! We must do many things we don’t want to do. Duty—we must be good soldiers!” It's an obvious echo of the just-concluded Nuremberg trials, where defendants had used the same excuse for their participation in torture, medical experiments, and mass murder. The blunt-force irony comes off as preachy even now, and it must have registered even more forcefully then. The didacticism of Hammerstein’s book also recalls that of Brecht, and Jane Cox’s lighting draws on German Expressionism with its harshness. Twice the lights go up on the audience for the performers to harangue us.
Still, CSC is to be commended for giving this thorny work another look. Rodgers’s music is lovely, and the actors do a fine job playing their instruments and injecting energy into the show. Doyle has paced it well, and it’s not boring. It’s like catching up with an old friend who’s just passing through—the visit may be pleasant, but the next one can wait awhile.
Evening performances for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. The musical runs through Dec. 14. Tickets start at $70 and are available at www.classicstage.org or by calling 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111, or at the box office at 136 East 13th St. (between Third and Fourth Aves.).