Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Feast and Famine

Well, yesterday was election day. I hope you voted. It’s the most basic act in a free society so everyone should take advantage of it. Just like everyone should take advantage of great theater…(how’s that for an awkward segue?)

First, the reviews: Links have been all over Facebook but, in case you still haven’t seen them, reviews of Cadence’s “Oleanna” and Firehouse’s “Love Kills” were in the T-D over the weekend.

Last week, I attended opening night of “Love Kills” at the Firehouse and next-to-closing night of Richmond Shakespeare’s “Arcadia.” My review of the former was possibly going to be in this week’s Style but as it turned out, it wasn’t (there is a nice feature by Rich Griset on the Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre company though). I won’t preempt my own review but I can offer some brief comments: I had a hard time with the script, the score, and some aspects of the production.

The true story of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate has been the inspiration for compelling and disturbing films like Natural Born Killers and Wild At Heart (two of my favorite movies). Unfortunately, Kyle Jarrow’s adaptation pits Charlie and Caril Ann’s story against a subplot (an entirely fictional one) involving the arresting sheriff and his wife. I found this subplot distracting and sometimes downright annoying.

Having said that, Nick Aliff delivers an amazing performance as Charlie and Emma Orelove is also excellent as Caril Ann. Their scenes together were golden. I think I would have enjoyed a play that focused exclusively on them much better. I’ll explain some more of my issues with the show after my review comes out, as well as lavish more praise on Mr. Aliff and Ms. Orelove.

In the meantime, let me gush a little about “Arcadia,” because, even though I didn’t expect to, I really enjoyed this show. In my humble opinion, the key to this show is getting wrapped up in the central mysteries and I, for one, was totally taken in by them. I wanted to know who the hermit was, I wanted to know if Byron actually killed Chater, I wanted to know what ultimately happened to Thomasina and Septimus. I empathized with Hannah and even with the obnoxious Bernard because they were so passionate in their own ways about discovering the answers to those mysteries and they pulled me anxiously through the more densely packed clumps of scientific falderal.

Sure, this is a play filled with big ideas and complicated concepts but to me it was like an overly lavish feast. Sometimes it’s too much but, boy, it’s nice to have something so sumptuous to wade through rather than the anemic ideas behind much so much of modern theater (exhibit a: jukebox musicals). There were times I was overwhelmed, but still, those times passed quickly and were balanced nicely. And the action always managed to circle back to the central mysteries.

A couple of things predispose me to liking a show like this. I’ve spent much of the past five years doing graduate school research so the excitement of historical clue-finding and conjecture that Hannah and Bernard go through was something I could totally relate to. Also, just like Shakespeare gives the illusion that people in Elizabethan England all spoke in iambic pentameter, Stoppard makes Englishmen and women in the early 19th and late 20th century seem much more erudite and clever than they ever were. I like this illusion. It’s a kind of hyper-intellectualism that I find entertaining.

So that’s the script, what about the performances? Well, I really think you need to talk in twosomes because some of the best parts of the production were the sparkling chemical reactions between Jen Meharg’s Hannah and Andrian Rieder’s Bernard, for instance; and Jonathan Conyers’ Septimus and Alex Wiles’ Thomasina. I was particularly enchanted by Wiles’ performance, showing an astounding amount of maturity in someone so young. Again, I’ve got some predisposition here, having two teenage daughters of my own. The last scene between Septimus and Thomasina may have been arguably more heartbreaking for me than other patrons, feeling the full weight of what a loss of someone so smart, enchanting, and vital would be like.

There were also many other great portrayals delivered by this talented cast, among them Julie Phillips as Lady Croom, Liz Blake White as Chloe Coverly, and the young Nathan Johnson as Augustus “Gus” Croom. And ultimately, the show was a great triumph for director Foster Solomon, a successful (again, in my opinion) and entertaining staging of a very challenging work.

But as much as I gush, I do not think the script or the production are/were quite flawless. The one scene where Valentine Coverly explains his mathematical ideas to Hannah is deathly boring, to the point that I doubt even Olivier could have made it sing (nice try by Andrew Ballard, though). I was confused about Hannah’s apparent aversion to emotional entanglement. Is she just too intellectual or is there more back story there? Of course, Ms. Meharg is entrancing even when she’s being emotionally remote so that didn’t ultimately detract from my enjoyment. However, I found David White’s Chater frustrating and distracting. That character really seemed to belong in a different play.

And finally, as much as I enjoyed it, I can see where some people would truly despise “Arcadia.” Not to speak for her, but I expect my wife would not enjoy it in the least. And, given that she’s demonstrably smarter than me, it’s not because she couldn’t parse the concepts. She would just need a more compelling reason to care about any of it. Maybe the teenage girl involved would hook her in, but maybe not for 3 hours.

According to the Wikipedia entry on “Arcadia,” one review called it “…too clever by about two-and-three quarters. One comes away instructed with more than one can usefully wish to know.” That may be along the lines of the perspective of people like the G.B. Pshaw that commented on the Style review. However, for me, as I’ve said, “Arcadia” was like a lavish banquet, most of which I found completely delicious. My only regret is that I didn’t see the show earlier in the run so that I could have come back and supped from that feast one more time before it closed down.


kJonesClark said...

Uh Oh!

Grant Mudge said...

David, I've posted on the RS blog:

...but will add here: Thank you for taking the time to see "Arcadia" and to write about it. You know I feel it to be a beautiful, vital and important play. We were very proud of the production.

Your voice is needful in evaluating current work in our community; I'm also grateful for your ongoing writings on the nature of criticism.

That discussion, throughout our region I think is healthy, spirited, and when it stays polite, as welcome as it can also be quite rigorous.

Thank you again,