Wednesday, June 30, 2010


There have been questions thrown about since the first review came out about the romantic chemistry between the leads in “The Sound of Music.” In the conversations I’ve had on the subject since then, it’s clear to me that “chemistry” is one of those non-descript descriptors that perhaps gets invoked a little too readily. Still, it’s one that I’m sure I’ve used before and I’m sure to use it again. In fact, I plan to use it most distinctly in this post.

Chemistry may be an elusive trait but, like so many things, you know it when you see it. It’s both the ability an actor has to make you thoroughly believe the feelings they are supposed to be having for another actor but also that magic spark that happens between two actors. It can probably be broken down technically – where is the actor looking? What gestures, big and small, is he/she using to indicate affection? How does their voice, their body language, their expressions reinforce the power of their emotions? Is he/she acting like someone in the throes of love would act? And is his/her partner responding in kind? But beyond any technical analysis, there is also usually a secret ingredient, something that can’t be easily distilled from the interaction. For that reason, lack of chemistry may not necessarily be an actor’s or a director’s “fault.” It’s part of the mysterious energy that happens on stage that makes a production work. “Chemistry” is one word used to encapsulate all of this, which makes it both useful and dangerous.

I think back to productions where I thought there was some great chemistry going on. Sycamore Rouge’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” was full of it, with Bill Brock, Terry Gau and Angie Shipley all working the intense emotions of that play for all they were worth. And speaking of Ms. Shipley, I thought she shared some fine romantic chemistry with Brett Ambler in “Urinetown” at the Mill a couple of years back. And speaking of the Mill, chemistry isn’t always romantic: John Moon, Jodi Strickler Smith and Paul Deiss shared a fantastic familial chemistry in “Greetings.” Ronnie Brown and Jimmy Glidden nearly crackled with antagonistic chemistry in “Take Me Out.”

And now I turn to “Twelfth Night,” Richmond Shakespeare’s current production that wraps up this weekend. I really enjoyed this show. In particular, the comic bits with the hilarious trio of Foster Solomon, Stacie Reardon Hall, and David Janosik (and assisted at times by Jonathan Conyers and their foil, Thomas Cunningham) are delightful. These actors are totally going for it – something that must be particularly difficult in the oppressive heat. Whenever any of these folks were on stage, I was happy.

However, the matter of chemistry comes in when I think about the principal love quadrangle between Viola and Orsino, Sebastian and Olivia. Susie Haubenstock called Laurel Maughan charming and I couldn’t agree more. I am also a big Katrinah Lewis fan and I love that she is given so much to dig into with Olivia. Her big beautiful expressive eyes are almost all she needs to convey the many moods of the tempestuous beauty. Both Andrew Ballard as Orsino and Zachary Page as Sebastian do fine work.

But even with all of these actors making the most of their roles, there were misfires among the romantic sparks. Page and Lewis did well together; I think Page’s surprise and delight at his character’s unexpected good fortune provided much of the energy that made that coupling pop. But I had a hard time really believing that Maughan was stricken with affection for Ballard, or that he similarly fell for her by the play’s end. Maughan and Lewis also didn’t click as intensely as I wanted them to. Particularly given that Olivia is supposed to be so disdainful, I did not feel the heat between them that would melt Olivia’s cold demeanor.

As I said, chemistry is elusive and also subjective. Many people may have picked up all sorts of electricity in the performances that they saw. And, if I were writing a review for print with a limited amount of words, I may not even mention this aspect of the show. There is so much that is right with this production, including excellent costumes and consistently exceptional supporting players, that I might not find room for it.

One last note on “Twelfth Night:” Billy Christopher Maupin plays a beguiling fool in a performance that I still find myself mulling over. My first impression was that he brought a little too much darkness and not enough sense of play to this role. I tend to like my fools a bit, well, foolish. But there was a certain genius to making his character somewhat muted, and at times, surprisingly contentious. I’m still not sure I loved the approach but it definitely intrigued me. (I should note that, having to skip out before the very last scene of the show, I apparently missed a final jig that I’ve been told is BC’s finest moment. So my characterization of his performance is therefore incomplete.)

If you want to see what I’m talking about, grab your tickets for “Twelfth Night” soon. Only 3 performances left. And any thoughts you have on chemistry -- good, bad or indifferent -- please share.


Thespis' Little Helper said...

A couple of thoughts (that I hope won't get me into trouble).

Chemistry. Hmmm...sounds like science.

Theatre. Hmmm...sounds like art.

But how to get to the art?

When the wonderful Stacey Cabaj steps on stage is she a nun? No, she's Stacey.

Do I believe the story she's telling about this nun? Absolutely.

I think "chemistry" (or the appearance of) can be created. I had an experience as a director with two actors that was imperative that their characters had chemistry. But in rehearsals it wasn't there. Their fault? Nope. It's science. BUT, we found ways to open them up to each other and to allow themselves to PLAY and to develop a relationship of play and trust and perhaps even flirtation between them. It was magical (or was it science?). The show opened and the comments and reviews roll in, raving about the chemistry between these two people.

Totally sounds like a boast, but was really a delightful discovery. I had always found reviews that talked about lack of chemistry to be silly. What is one to do about science after all? It was fun to discover that at least sometimes (and maybe it would only work with those two people) you can find it. Maybe the next time I try that it won't work at all, but I think we found a pretty stellar technique.

Now. Twelfth Night. Wow! Thank you for the paragraph! (Note: This is obviously completely subjective and I try not to be one to rush to defend choices in the light [or darkness haha] of criticism, but...)

Molly Hood (director) and I talked quite a bit about what was there and how the fool isn't so much funny as incisive. The clowns (Andrew, Toby, Maria, perhaps even Malvolio and Fabian) function as the funny. There's a lot in the text about the Fool that seems to point up hardships and where has he been and why has he come back, etc. He does his job through clever wordplay, which is not always a belly laugh sort of thing. Or at least those were the choices and discoveries we made.

This is so interesting to me! It's an odd character (to me) because he never reveals anything of himself (or not much anyway...maybe he had a sister...or maybe that was just wordplay) and there are few times when anyone else says much about him either.

Fascinating character this one. Love him. But Shakespeare has left innumerable questions unanswered with him.

So much rambling. I'll stop now. I'll give it some more thought and maybe revisit.

Thank you thank you thank you for coming and for writing about it! It's really a wonderful group of people to play with.

Andrew Hamm said...

Sometimes chemistry is similar to when you just like or don't like a show. Sometimes it's an entirely subjective audience perception. But as I examine this issue, I have to acknowledge that the times I've felt the most chemistry with another actor (with Jeff Cole in Hamlet, Liz Blake in Measure for Measure, Sarah Cole in The Blizzard of '93) it has always been visible to the audience, i.e. remarked upon by critics and spectators. I've never felt big sparks that weren't visible.

(Regarding the above trio, it's no coincidence that they are three of my best friends. Anybody got a four-person script for us? That would be a hell of a cast.)

Sometimes it just is, and that's magic. Sometimes, as Billy says, it can be opened up into. But I don't believe that acting is either art or science; it's a craft, and almost every element of it can be improved and refined through work. Approaching it like science locks the artist into a cause - effect technique that squelches inspiration (the Stanislavski system has this danger attached when approached too rigidly). But approaching it as a pure art is arguably worse, because it creates a pattern where you can't do anything unless you feel "motivated." The idea of craft acknowledges the creative nature of the work while leaving room for technical refinement and improvement.

That semi-relevant digression aside, there is nothing in theatre more frustrating than having to manufacture something that needs to appear automatic and effortless. Sometimes it's not there. As a director, I have shifted the entire focus of shows when the chemical sparks were clearly not coming. I've done the opposite as well; Julia Rigby and Adam Mincks were so damn cute in As You Like It that we wanted to see more of them together, so we manufactured more reasons to see them as a couple.

It is ultimately the director's responsibility to gauge the relationships between the members of his company and shape the production to maximize the positives and eliminate the negatives. Much of the "no chemistry" complaint can be laid in his/her lap.

Dave T said...

There are few things I love more than enlightened and civil discussion on questions like this. Thanks to both BC and Andrew for chiming in and for your insights. As I am always on the outside of the process looking in, it's intriguing to hear how these things develop. I really appreciate your art/science/craft delineation, Andrew. Lots to think about along those lines. And, Mr. Christoper, I hope to be able to swing by and catch your jig tonight. A nice cool evening should make for a delightful performance.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

(Posted then something went wrong. Re-creating:)

Andrew, thank you for the point about "craft". Was heading in that direction with "But how to get to the art?" but then got distracted when started talking about the beautiful and talented Stacey Cabaj.

I sadly can't argue with much of what Andrew said. Sorry, Dave! Haha!

It is going to be a beautiful night! Do come check out the jig. (It should be noted that it's the entire company with Molly Hood's choreography. I just arranged the song that leads into it.)

Dave T said...

Quick note on Stacey: there was a small crowd of young fans hanging out in the Empire lobby after SOM last night and it was really fun to watch their faces when Stacey came out from upstairs. They just went all wide-eyed and slack-jawed. She has certainly gained a fervent following here in Richmond during her short time in town.

Bill Brock said...

Hey, Dave-- Thanks so much for the 'Shout-Out' regarding my work in "Streetcar". That show remains my career high...(I do believe I've got a package of Steak-Umms coming your way! LOL!)