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.