Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Good News

The box office news from Broadway is certainly good, with “American Idiot” apparently going gangbusters, a situation that can only be helped by Green Day’s impromptu performance after a show last week. Generally good notices on Denzel Washington in “Fences” should continue the positive receipts.

I’m not sure what the overall story is locally but I’m hopeful that the positive review of “The Crucible” inspires folks to head down to Sycamore Rouge. Also, I was pretty amazed by the full house at Barksdale’s “Is He Dead?” last Sunday. This is the kind of broad farce that has appeal for everyone – even my 6 year old – so I hope it grabs a decent audience. My review should be in tomorrow’s Style but I have to rectify some absences in my review. First off, due to space, I wasn’t able to give anything more than a listing of Millet’s partners-in-ruse, played by David Janeski, Derek Phipps and Joe Carlson. These guys are great and, if this play had been written as a modern-day movie, would warrant their own Marx Brothers kind of a spin-off. Carlson exudes an energetic jocularity that I expect typifies the 19th century American and is really the engine of the play’s plot. Janeski is a fine counterpoint as the practical German, and Phipps makes for an entertaining and somewhat dim Irishman.

I also was not able to expound on the only disappointment for me in the show, which is the squandering of substantial female talent in the cast. Joy Williams and Kimberly Jones Clark are both formidable actresses; it’s a little disheartening that they have so little to do in this show. Aly Wepplo is always fun to watch and she is a fitting object of Millet's affection here. But her role here is a bit of a stereotype, in contrast to her character in “Putnam County Spelling Bee” which was a real joy. Kristan Swanson is the only actress given much to work with and she does a great job with it.

I enjoyed Beau Marie’s performance very much, particularly his growing fervor in the second act. As would be expected, David Bridgewater tears into his bad-guy role with gusto and makes much more of it than is on the page. And the always-welcome Matthew Costello does well with his subsidiary, somewhat sad-sack role.

But I left the show remembering Joe Pabst most distinctly. His reactions onstage, whether as the snooty art buyer or the dutiful manservant, are always perfectly measured for maximum comic effect. Well done, Mr. Pabst.

It was interesting to read the little bit in the program about Mark Twain and the development of “Is He Dead?” I know a little bit about Twain’s experience with theater, which was not always particularly great. I read his collaboration with famous frontier writer, Bret Harte, called “Ah Sin,” for a class I took a couple of years ago. This play was setup to be a blockbuster: it involved two literary superstars and it starred Charles Bledsoe, a huge stage star of the day thanks to a particular sub-genre of plays that featured bumbling Chinese characters.

The character of “Ah Sin” was taken from a poem Harte had written, commonly known as “The Heathen Chinee,” that was arguably the most often reprinted poem of the latter 19th century and helped spur waves of anti-Chinese discrimination at the time. (It’s always intriguing to me to consider that, while discrimination against African-Americans is debated over and over again, the wholesale discrimination against Chinese immigrants – which transcended geography and class, was codified in American law and celebrated by an author as beloved as Twain – has mostly faded into obscurity.) The play was notable for my research because, in it, various epithets are hurled at the Chinese character; he is called everything from “a moral cancer” to a “slant-eyed son of the yellow janders [i.e., jaundice].” Good times!

The play was a dud. Not a “close after one night” abject failure, but a mediocre play that faded surprisingly quickly given the hoopla surrounding its development. Anyway, the whole experience did nothing to inspire Twain to focus any more on playwriting and reportedly left him pretty bitter. It may have been one of the reasons he never pushed “Is He Dead?” Like they say, once bitten, twice shy.

2 comments:

Grant Mudge said...

Hello Dave,

Saw the Lynchburg College production of "Is He Dead?" a week ago Thursday, directed by Nan Kordos. Smart, funny, and also quite enjoyable. Looking fwd to B'Dales just for a little comparison. Lots of actors I love to watch in the B'Dale production.

Alyson said...

How disappointing that the review didn't come out this week either! Nothing helps ticket sales like a big ol' picture in the paper. But I'm so glad you liked it.

It's an interesting remark to make that my character, Marie, is a stereotype. Because, really, they're almost ALL stereotypes - it's just that kind of show. Like all the roles in a commedia dell'arte piece are stock characters. And the sisters Marie and Cecile mirror the heroines of commedia - Clarice and Beatrice - pretty exactly. One is sweet, naive, and doted on by her father, and the other dresses up as a man to get to the bottom of things. And it's true that Marie could be dumber, sillier, and therefore maybe funnier, but I don't think that's the purpose she serves to the story. At the heart of a lot of very funny antics, Marie and Francois show sincere affection for one another, and that makes us root for the hero and his friends in a way that we otherwise might not.

But the bottom line is that it's a very funny show, audiences are loving it, and we can use all the publicity we can get. LIke - "Grant Mudge likes it - you will too!" Eh? Eh?