By Michael John LaChiusa
A great play, by contrast, is one whose cheating
is earned, relevant to the action and necessary to the play’s eloquence–as
when Euripides’ child-murderer Medea (conceived in 431 BC) escapes the
scene of her crimes in a dragon-drawn chariot, offering not only a marvelous
spectacle in itself but also a stunning reminder of how much larger and more
unfathomable she is as a moral phenomenon than the mortals around her have comprehended.
This is the sort of thing Aristotle had in mind when he said sagely that, in
drama, "one should choose events that are impossible but plausible in preference
to ones that are possible but implausible." Imagine the loss of scale had
Medea gotten away by, say, bribing her guards, or slipping through a hitherto
unmentioned tunnel beneath her house.
Marie Christine, Michael John LaChiusa’s
musical version of Medea set in the antebellum Creole society of 1890s
New Orleans, certainly has the blush of popularity about it. Its music is moving,
excitingly propulsive and complexly varied (with Caribbean rhythms side by side
with ragtime, tuneful r&b, dissonant Weill-like ballads and much more)–by
far the strongest and most original new score in the past several Broadway seasons.
The show’s premodern story follows the outline of the ancient legend with
minimal contrivance. And the lead actress, Audra McDonald, a force of nature
apparently incapable of uttering a sound that isn’t richly musical, pulls
it all together with her luminous presence and glittering voice.
In the end, though, Marie Christine is really
a study in cleverly veiled cheating. It’s enjoyable partly because it is
mired in the "possible but implausible," which prevents it from rising
to any truly transcendent or harrowing level of experience. The title character,
for instance, is a vodoun "healer" displaced to Chicago (Medea was
a barbarian sorceress displaced to Greece), but all her vodoun posturing remains
on the level of ribbon-waving mumbo jumbo, threats and incantations grounded
in fully explicable psychological suggestion. This supposedly "dark"
religious tradition, in other words, remains unmysterious and unmagical, with
the result that Marie is never really frightening or monstrous. She is a likable,
human-scale character who, distracted by jealousy or not, simply would never
do to her children what the plot says she does.
LaChiusa’s prodigious composing talents notwithstanding,
he’d have been wise to collaborate with a real writer on this project,
someone capable of inventing at least a powerful speech or two to make Marie
seem compellingly strange and foreign beyond readily explicable frames of schematic
social-politics. The proud, mixed-race Marie–betrayed by her white lover
Dante Keyes (Anthony Crivello) when he needs to get respectable in order to
run for city office–is diminished by her violent act of revenge. She chooses
it petulantly over several perfectly acceptable alternatives, which reduces
her to mundane criminality. (The whole show is a flashback from prison, where
she has been sentenced to die the next morning.) Interestingly, in an article
in the house magazine Lincoln Center Theater Review, the inmate-celebrity
Wilbert Rideau, a perceptive journalist and filmmaker, hinted at some of these
problems between the lines of his praise for LaChiusa’s work: "In
real life, you would not likely find a Marie Christine among the nation’s
murderers. Her peculiar pathology could exist only in a fable… Unfortunately,
Marie Christine is ultimately about destructive relationships."
What Rideau cannot have seen, however–unless
he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary to see a performance,
which I doubt–is how LaChiusa, McDonald and the director Graciela Daniele
were able to make all the compromises seem trivial for two and a half hours.
The surging production, with its pounding rhythms (and slightly pandering mania)
of an African drummer perched on a sky-high platform, its rush of black-clad
choral prisoners swirling around the confessing Marie, whose singing voice could
cure anyone’s despair–all this and more pulled the audience along
with card-sharp efficiency on the play’s modest emotional journey. Only
later, in the fullness of afterthought, did the deficiencies of scale and plausibility
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150
W. 65th St. (B’way), 239-6200, through Jan. 9.
By Peter Shaffer
Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, on the other
hand, is a famously popular play that cannot sustain its clever cheating until
its final curtain. It begins with several good, serious ideas speculating about
the death of Mozart and the homicidal envy of his lesser rival Antonio Salieri.
But even in this slick production directed by Peter Hall (who also directed
the original London and Broadway productions in 1979 and 1980), its nearly three-hour
length seems about twice what the drama requires.
Unlike the 1984 film directed by Milos Forman,
the play Amadeus focuses on Salieri and his need to confess to the audience
(which presumably shares his mediocrity, as underlined by the huge upstage mirror
in Hall’s production). The film’s dominant portrayal of Mozart as
a boorish, obscene child is also a major part of the play, but the thrust is
on Salieri’s need to explain his hostility toward Mozart in many more words
than the screenplay (also by Shaffer) could tolerate. Salieri’s quarrel,
as he explains in a long monologue at the end of Act 1, is really with God,
who made him competent but unexceptional despite his hard work, and chose "spiteful,
sniggering, conceited, infantile Mozart!–who has never worked one minute
to help another man" as "his preferred Creature."
This is an interesting dispute that raises fascinating
questions about society’s glorification of mediocrity and the moral neutrality
of genius. The problem is that, as a dramatic knot, it’s inert, because
one of the major parties to the conflict, God, has nothing to say in response,
and because Shaffer (like LaChiusa) demonstrates unequivocally, early on, that
he isn’t up to the task of painting a truly larger-than-life figure. (Mozart’s
silly infantilisms get old very fast.) Shaffer asks good questions but then
leaves himself nothing to do in his second act but plod grimly through a catalog
of Salieri’s carefully concealed cruelties and thwartings of Mozart, all
of which demonstrate precisely the same point about God’s indifference
to the sort of worldly recognition he enjoys at Mozart’s expense.
In the end, Shaffer patches together a complex-seeming
conclusion by tossing together old and new loose ends, but it won’t wash.
There’s a trite reunion of Mozart with his shallowly drawn wife, for instance,
and a botched suicide attempt by Salieri, after which he suddenly and inexplicably
anoints himself as holy confessor: "Mediocrities everywhere–now and
to come–I absolve you all." Both playwright and character seem to
think Salieri has become an immortal creation at this point, and his snickering
claim to have rescued himself from historical oblivion by whispering his name
as Mozart’s assassin reflects unflatteringly on Shaffer as a pathetic,
last-ditch appeal to cheap notoriety.
Still, for the pleasures of this play’s deft
cheating in its first act we should nevertheless be grateful–particularly
since its swift and sumptuous establishment of the 18th-century Viennese court
constitutes high historical ambition compared to everything else currently on
Broadway, and since Salieri’s self-consciously "scandalous" need
to confess provides clever sugarcoating for some important ideas about art and
morality and the value of complexity in entertainment. The tricks of the play
are indeed amusing for an hour or so: the convention of hearing Mozart’s
music over loudspeakers while he or others read his manuscripts, for instance,
and the artificial suspense (which no one believes, including Salieri) created
by dozens of whispering offstage voices. David Suchet is a surprisingly amiable
Salieri, generating sympathy for his character through what seems, strangely
enough, to be genuine affection for Mozart’s music. And Michael Sheen is
impressive as Mozart, inasmuch as consistent childishness and sweaty, anxious
exertions can substitute for the depths Shaffer couldn’t fathom. Neither
actor can rewrite the play, alas, which leaves both of their characters huffing
and puffing on a dubious treadmill.
Music Box Theater, 239 W. 45th St. (B’way
& 8th Ave.), 239-6200, through May 28.