Magnificent Oddity

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Magnificent Oddity
the third year in a row, before the theater season is two months old, I’ve
seen a production that I’m sure–without prejudice to any future show–will
be one of the pinnacles of my year. In 1997 I had this feeling with Ivo van
Hove’s version of O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions. In 1998 it
was Dare Clubb’s production of his own Oedipus. Now it is the Scottish
Royal Lyceum Theatre Company’s production of Calderon’s Life Is A
Dream, directed by the Spaniard Calixto Bieito. Funny, smart, lucid, stunningly
physical and exquisitely acted, this production visited the Brooklyn Academy
of Music last week for only six days. In an America where more than a handful
of commercial producers still existed with real imagination and guts, it might’ve
run much longer on its own steam outside the Next Wave Festival.

Written in 1635, Life
Is A Dream
is the crowning text of the Spanish Golden Age–a work of
astonishing passion, insight and poetic grace that is nevertheless rarely produced
because even directors–not known for meekness, as a class–tend to
be terrified of it. To see it done well once, however, is to wonder what all
the terror is about, because its continuing immediacy and contemporaneity practically
slap you in the face. Its roots in hoary principles of honor and Christian doctrine
notwithstanding, this play is as unlikely to go out of fashion as sex, jealousy,
fear of death and fear of God’s judgment–its major preoccupations.

The story itself, for all
its metaphysical speculation, is enthralling. Segismundo, heir to the Polish
throne, has been locked away in a tower since birth because his father, King
Basilio, feared an astrological prophecy that the boy would grow into a tyrant
and usurp him. One day–after the grown and animalistic prince has been
accidentally found by Rosaura, a woman traveling to Poland in male disguise
to regain her honor–Basilio has Segismundo drugged, brought to the palace
and treated like royalty to test whether his character is indeed as bestial
as feared. The prince behaves atrociously, of course, stinging his father with
accurate rebukes, and he is drugged again, returned to the tower and told that
the palace episode was merely a dream.

This single idea, however,
planted in the thin soil of Christian teaching that Segismundo’s keeper
Clotaldo has dusted him with, sprouts quickly into a full-blown conscience:
Segismundo thinks that if there’s no way to tell whether we’re dreaming
our lives, then we must behave as if we could awaken at any moment and face
God’s judgment. In the end, the prophecy, which the arrogant Basilio obviously
misinterpreted, is fulfilled. Freed by a rebellious officer to march against
the king, Segismundo humbles his father but then submits to him, condemns the
rebellious officer for treason and denies himself the love of Rosaura in order
to restore her honor–his transformation from an amoral infant into a magnificently
judicious adult complete.

Bieito has taken this action–creaky
ideas of propriety and all–and made it unforgettably present-tense over
two intermissionless hours. With the stage bare except for a large circle of
loose gravel on the floor that crunches and scatters under everyone’s shoes
and an enormous, mobile baroque mirror hanging above (set design by Bieito and
Carles Pujol), the emphasis is constantly on the weight, heft, vanity and fascinating
awkwardness of the mortal human body. Two musicians sit unobtrusively at the
back (Miguel Poveda and José Miguel Cerro) supplying wonderfully malapert
yet diminutive rhythms almost entirely with their hands, feet and a few boxes.

The intensity of the evening
resides in the acting, though, particularly George Anton’s performance
as Segismundo. Seen at BAM in 1996 as the duplicitous Bosola in Cheek by Jowl’s
production of The Duchess of Malfi, Anton here plays a much more earnest
character that allows his strange, sinewy energy and fervid exertions to read
as evidence of divine candor and grace. With his skinny chest bare and heaving,
the sweat glistening over his entire shaved head, his cheeks glowing like a
lantern, he ranges from the noblest generosity to the basest cruelty without
ever seeming insincere. And since his expressions, gestures and mellifluous
Scottish inflections are all wholly modern–blowing out his cheeks in reaction
to Rosaura’s story of shame and abandonment by Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy,
for instance–his demeanor is a constant connection to all our own age’s
glib and "virtual" impediments to unmediated vision and feeling. Beckett’s
Estragon half-seriously longed for the days when "they crucified quick,"
and this mortal dreamer, in effect stripped for crucifixion himself, suffers
precisely the same doubts about the authenticity of his existence.

Olwen Fouere’s performance
as Rosaura is also indelibly precise, as is Sylvester McCoy as the clown-servant
Clarin who accompanies Rosaura to Poland. A flat-faced, sharp-featured actress
equally capable of light charm and grimly obsessive determination, Fouere makes
Rosaura almost as profoundly unsettled as Segismundo. Stuffed into an ill-fitting
orange dress for much of the play, which makes her look as uncomfortable as
a woman as she did as a man (the costumes are all indeterminately modern, with
the men vaguely totalitarian), she refuses to play the victim even though everyone
treats her as one. Interestingly, she and Bieito have found a shrewd solution
to the serious problem that Rosaura must marry her rapist in the end (a common
problem in classical plays, alas): she simply plays strong, lingering sexual
desire for Astolfo, and he reciprocates, implying there was always much more
to their relationship than the breach of promise or rape.

McCoy, for his part, wearing
a standard red clown nose, is masterful at handling the bulk of the crass contemporary
humor in John Clifford’s smooth and speakable but occasionally over-colloquial
translation. Whether he is blaspheming on the heels of someone else’s spiritually
awestruck monologue ("Holy shit, what in God’s name was that?"),
or pissing on Clotaldo, or snickering in asides about "the plots of countless
bad dramas," or playing cheap tricks on audience members with playing cards
as the fate of a kingdom hangs in the balance, his hilarious sycophancy and
infantilism are the main reasons the production’s high and low tones feel
woven together with such purposeful beauty.

As I was leaving this Life
Is A Dream
, I was stunned to overhear a young couple scornfully dismissing
the production as "disgusting." They were especially offended, it
seems, by Clarin’s scatological humor and Segismundo’s frank sexuality
(crawling under the dress of the first woman he sees at the palace, for instance,
and briefly masturbating later in his cell). What then, I wondered, did they
imagine the play was about? Perhaps they thought gratification and mortification
of the flesh were out of place in a play whose given circumstances include torturous
isolation, or perhaps they saw the sick psychosexual father-son conflict as
somehow secondary to Calderon’s "nicer" honor questions, or to
his presumably polite poetry. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bieito
and company have merely reminded us that this 364-year-old gem holds solace
regarding our very own messily modern night fears, if we care to see it.


Look Back in Anger
by John Osborne

Classic Stage Company,

136 E. 13th St.
(betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.),
through Nov. 14.

The revival of John Osborne’s
1956 Look Back in Anger at Classic Stage Company, directed by Jo Bonney, is
in a way the opposite case. A sensitive director with a fine, talented cast
has given a work considered a modern classic as loving, careful and subtle a
staging as any fan of the text could hope for, yet that text simply hasn’t
stood the test of time. Osborne may have been the celebrated "gatekeeper"
of the angry postwar British drama movement (as David Hare recently called him),
and this play may have therefore had more influence than any other modern English
one. A mere 43 years, however, has dated its depiction of male-female relations
so badly that basic questions of plausibility now sap the vital energy from
its famously heated conflict.

The conflict centers on
a working-class young man named Jimmy Porter (played by Reg Rogers), stunningly
articulate and furious at the bleak and "pusillanimous" world his
generation inherited, and his upper-class wife Alison (Enid Graham), who irons
in silence for most of the long first act, refusing to respond to his increasingly
abusive provocations. A live-in friend of Jimmy named Cliff Lewis (James Joseph
O’Neill), who seems alternately in love with Jimmy and Alison, plays referee
when he can, and a friend of Alison named Helena Charles (Angelina Phillips),
an actress who claims to hate Jimmy, arrives as a guest and stays as his lover
after Alison takes her "friendly" advice and goes home to her parents.

The biggest problem with
all this is that no self-respecting woman today would put up with Jimmy’s
loathsome and spiteful verbal abuse for nearly as long as Alison does, no matter
what her class–which makes it awfully hard to believe that any self-respecting
woman would have in 1956 either. The second biggest problem is that no self-respecting
friend would stick around a house with such evil vibes for nearly as long as
Helena does, no matter what her secret attraction for the man. Helena says at
one point that Jimmy’s hatred is "oddly exciting," but neither
Rogers nor Phillips ever rises to the challenge of giving this misogynistically
conceived idea real emotional substance, nor does Graham invest Alison’s
chronic indolence with any strong sense of inner rebellion or passive-aggression
that might lend her a redemptive edge.

In an interview in the October
issue of American Theatre, Bonney responded to questions about these
problems by stressing the characters’ youth: "Their behavior arises
from that time in your life when you’re starting to understand the bigger
scheme of things and where you stand in it–the frustration of having reached
the moment when your idealism is looking shaky; you’ve hurtled into a relationship
and now you’re having doubts. That behavior is timeless." Perhaps
it is. The question is whether Osborne’s representation of it also is.