Atrocity: “The Scottsboro Boys” at ACT

The Interlocuter (Hal Linden, center), with Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph, left) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) prepare to tell the tale of the Scottsboro Boys. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last musical together, The Scottsboro Boys, opened on Broadway after Ebb’s death, where it flopped, managing a run of only 49 performances. But its historical and deadly serious subject matter, concerning a particularly heinous bit of Jim Crow injustice in 1930s Alabama, has ensured the musical has had a rather successful run at several important regional theaters. (Prior to the current run at ACT, this production played at The Old Globe in San Diego. A slightly different mounting also occurred at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.)

The show has a risky conceit—using minstrel show conventions to comment on and portray the plight of the nine men (boys, actually—the youngest was just 12 or 13 and the oldest were 19) who were falsely accused of raping two white women. But Kander and Ebb, along with book-writer David Thompson, attempt to upend those conventions, employing them not to denigrate blacks for the entertainment of largely white audiences, but to comment on white perceptions and treatment of blacks. The attempt is somewhat analogous to what Thompson did with his updated book (based on the original by Ebb and Bob Fosse) for the 1996 revival of Chicago, where a vaudeville structure is used to present the hardboiled comic tale of the (fictional) murderess Roxie Hart. But Chicago is a musical version of a classic American comedy (by Maurine Watkins). The Scottsboro Boys is a musicalization of a tragic historical event. It would take a special kind of brilliance to pull this off, a brilliance not in evidence here. Instead what we’re left with is a perfunctory presentation that renders the story just another generic account of southern racial injustice. There is no emotional or dramatic connection with the characters on stage, and the audience is left tsk-tsk-ing past injustices and congratulating itself on having seen something daring.

Worse, the minstrel show structure ensures that if we applaud and cheer the musical numbers (specifically, the performers who sing and dance them), we’re complicit in the racist minstrel tradition, which is unfair not only to the audience, but to the actors. (I had to double-check to make sure that George C. Wolfe hadn’t written the book. The concept also calls to mind Spike Lee’s sour, preposterous 2000 film about a modern-day minstrel show, Bamboozled.) Thompson uses irony as a sledgehammer: It’s so heavy-handed it ceases being ironic and becomes merely banal. The Brechtian distancing techniques that were used to such terrific effect in Chicago and Cabaret here put all of the characters at such a remove that empathy is impossible. They’re too distanced from us. They never become human, and we’re never moved by their plight, except in a general, oh-isn’t-that-terrible sort of way.

The show is introduced by the Interlocutor (Hal Linden, the only white cast member), who is soon joined by Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery, who understudied the part on Broadway) and Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph). All three are traditional minstrel stock characters. The Interlocutor serves an MC, doubling as the high-up white authority figures in the story, judges and governors. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo are the clowns who also portray the other white roles: the sheriffs, prison guards, and lawyers. Then the nine actors who portray the accused appear, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson. They sit in chairs arranged in a semi-circle (another feature of traditional minstrelsy), which are used in various configurations throughout to serve as train cars, prison cells, buses, and the like. Many of the actors double as other black characters, while two of them (Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane) portray the white girls who accuse the boys of rape, thus beginning their horrendous odyssey. While hopping a freight from Tennessee, the boys are arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama, because of a fight with some whites (which they may or may not have actually been involved in).  They are then charged with rape by the two white girls, fellow travelers who have clearly made up the accusations to get themselves out of trouble. Threats of lynching, sentences of death (never carried out), years of incarceration, and other shocking miscarriages of justice ensue.

Clifton Oliver (left foreground) and James T. Lane (right foreground) as the accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. (Photo: Henry DiRocco)

Thompson plays fast and loose with the historical record, which wouldn’t matter if the show had any sort of dramatic truth, but it doesn’t, so the necessary compression and rearrangement become troublesome. Roy Wright (Clinton Roane) is portrayed as considerably older than the 13-year-old he was (Nile Bullock, a young actor who is credible as a pre-teen, plays Eugene Williams, the other 13-year-old defendant), and other details of their ordeal are reordered, omitted, or disregarded. Samuel Leibowitz (portrayed satirically by Mr. Bones), the white, Jewish New York lawyer who defended the boys (at no cost) in their many retrials and appeals is horribly mistreated by Thompson. He is criticized for having a black chauffeur and maid (would he be less racist if he refused to hire blacks for those positions?), and his own sacrifices on the boys’ behalf are dismissed because of impure motives (as if “pure” motives existed anywhere but in bad narratives). When one of the white girls recants her testimony, she is first handed a sheet of paper by Leibowitz, from which she reads her new testimony, suggesting that Leibowitz has somehow unethically orchestrated this new development.

This all comes to a head in the musical’s dramatic climax. After spending many years in prison, Leibowitz approaches Patterson with a chance for parole, if he will plead guilty to the rapes. But the script’s Patterson is nobility itself, so after (briefly) agonizing over the choice, he refuses to lie, even though it would free him. And so, we’re told, he dies in prison. Here’s what really happened: Patterson later escaped from prison and fled to Detroit. The governor of Michigan refused to extradite him back to Alabama, so he remained free, until he killed a man in a bar fight and was imprisoned for that crime. Then he died in prison. But these truths play havoc with Thompson’s conception of Patterson as the incorruptible hero and Leibowitz as the shyster who would dare ask his client to compromise his principles. Thompson can’t trust his audience to understand people are messy and complicated, a fact that doesn’t mitigate the injustice done to Patterson one iota. Thompson apparently fears it does.

What the audience does respond to is the terrific, talented cast. Montgomery, Joseph, Oliver, Lane, and especially Duncan are ferociously talented, as are the rest of the players. The one criticism I have is against Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, who yells too much in his initial scenes. While anger is a justifiable reaction to being imprisoned on a false rape charge, Jackson’s performance is too one-note here, and it’s tiresome rather than moving. Superstar director and choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact, The Music Man revival) acquits herself ably, using the chairs in their various guises ingeniously, but she’s unable to overcome the flawed concept and too-obvious book. And what of Kander and Ebb’s score? The jaunty “Commencing in Chattanooga” which occurs on the train journey before the arrest is sort of fun, and the wistful ballad “Go Back Home,” which expresses the boys’ sorrow and longing for freedom, is lovely. But the other songs are overly didactic or obvious, and the decisions as to when the songs should be in the minstrel show convention and when they shouldn’t seems arbitrary and not well thought out.

In a show full of bad ideas, perhaps the worst is the use of its lone female cast member (C. Kelly Wright, who does her best in perhaps the most thankless role ever). Silent and omnipresent for almost all of the play, she represents Silenced Black Womanhood, or perhaps Silenced Black Personhood. Then at play’s end, Thompson uses Wright to transform Rosa Parks’ famous act of bravery into sentimentality, an idea as dumb as the son in Next to Normal turning out to be a manic-depressive hallucination.

The Scottsboro Boys turns out to be just another act of injustice against a group of men and boys who have already suffered enough. Thompson gives us only the barest details of the defendants’ actual lives. All we know at play’s end is that they were innocent, they had mothers, and they wanted their freedom. But we knew that going in. The audience is also unjustly antagonized for responding to the performances. To judge from Kander’s program notes, this was unintentional, which makes the transgression even worse—Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson are too smart to have overlooked this effect of employing a minstrel show construction. It’s also unfair to their talented cast, whose performances can’t be accepted on their own merits, and who aren’t allowed to portray actual human beings. Local critics are treating the production as an artistic triumph. It isn’t. It’s a disaster.

The ensemble, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson, sings “Commencing in Chattanooga.” (Photo: Henry DiRocco)

The Scottsboro Boys plays until July 22 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, go to

The Destruction of Love: The Aurora Theatre’s Anatol


Gabrielle (Delia MacDougall) and Anatol (Mike Ryan) share a memory on Christmas Eve.  (Photo: David Allen)

Arthur Schnitzler, the unjustly neglected chronicler of Viennese fin de siècle sexual mores, receives some well-deserved attention thanks to a new production of his play Anatol by the great Aurora Theatre Company. Schnitzler was friendly with Freud in the latter part of his life (both were Jewish and doctors), and they shared a fascination with the human psyche and the conflict between sexual behavior and conventional morality.

Schnitzler is most famous for La Ronde, (originally published in German in 1903 as Reigen, but more commonly called by its French name due to Max Ophuls’ famous movie adaptation), a theatrical rondel in 10 scenes portraying sex as the force that transcends class barriers and explodes hidebound conceptions of virtue. It was famously condemned and couldn’t be performed in many countries for years. Schnitzler is now probably more famous in the English-speaking world as the author of Dream Story (Traumnovelle in German), the novella that Stanley Kubrick adapted for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. (Don’t judge Schnitzler by the moribund, enervating tableaux not-so-vivants that Kubrick brought to the screen.)

Anatol was initially published piecemeal in short scenes, but released in its full, seven-scene length in 1892. In a world-premiere translation by Schnitzler scholar Margret Schaefer, the Aurora presents six of those scenes in a slightly different order. (A program note mentions that Schnitzler wrote nine Anatol scenes, but I was not able to find any confirmation of this—the English translations I was able to glance at all have seven scenes.) The omission of “Agony,” the usual penultimate scene, emphasizes the comic in this mounting, but rue and regret still echo throughout the evening.

The title character is clearly modeled on Schnitzler himself: Anatol professes to believe in love, but flits from one tryst to another, always disappointed, never fully trusting the women he’s sleeping with, using that mistrust to disguise his own self-loathing. However, Anatol the play is a comedy of manners and several of the scenes are farcical, so the terrific Aurora cast and the wonderful direction by Aurora co-founder and artistic director emerita Barbara Oliver create a hilarious and exceedingly entertaining evening of theater, without slighting the melancholy inherent in Anatol’s exploits. (During this production, I was struck by the fact that Anatol is clearly a precursor to TV’s Frasier, a show which, at its best, juggled the same strains of farce, high comedy, romance, and melancholy.)

Anatol is a literary descendant of Don Juan, the seducer who aims to prove all women unworthy through the very act of seduction. He appears in all six of the vignettes and is almost never offstage. His friend Max is his foil, his confidant, his best friend, and also the person most capable of seeing through his self-justifications and fabrications. Max appears in four of the six scenes, and each scene features a different woman: a new conquest, two figures from the past, a lover no longer beloved, a fiancée, and a mistake. Oliver uses one actress to portray all of these roles, a strategy I was leery of. You need to see a parade of different women, of different types, to understand the energy and desperation of Anatol’s quixotic search for love. Could one actress convey these disparate types of women?


Ilona (Delia MacDougall) avenges herself on Anatol (Mike Ryan) while Max (Tim Kniffin) observes. (Photo: David Allen)

Well, the right actress can, and that actress is Delia MacDougall. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen MacDougall in a play, and I had half-forgotten how ferociously talented she is. Here, each of her six women is absolutely distinct. She physicalizes and vocalizes each one completely, transforming herself with each new incarnation. As a willing hypnosis subject, whom Anatol hopes to bewitch into telling him the truth of her feelings for him, she’s breezy and delightful, possessing the self-confidence of youth. As Bianca the circus performer, she brandishes a Russian accent, purring with mock dismay when Max upbraids her for not recognizing Anatol. Her bearing is still and proud as the married woman Anatol runs into while shopping on Christmas Eve. Having had an affair with Anatol in the past (though we don’t know how far it went), she listens to Anatol describe his current flame while gently needling him. “I know your tastes,” she says, spitting off the end of “tastes.” And in a tender moment, she and Anatol almost kiss, but she breaks it off, knowing that such pleasures are in the past for her. There’s a gorgeous moment when she, in a generous final gesture, hands over to Anatol the bright orange hothouse tulips she’s been carrying around with her packages, a gift for his new paramour.

The tulips have a warm glow, a symbol of the passion she’s bequeathing to this new woman. (Krista Smith’s lighting and the properties design, credited to both Mia Baxter and Seren Helday are exquisite throughout.) This scene is Oliver’s best bit of direction: The blocking perfectly portrays an aimless winter’s stroll despite the tiny space of the Aurora stage, and the subtle shifts of mood are almost heartbreaking.

MacDougall’s Annie, a dancer with the Opera who’s decided to break up over supper with Anatol, carries a head that’s not quite attached to her body. It bobbles around merrily as she gobbles down oysters, dismissing Anatol unconcernedly, prattling in her sloshy diction. This amazing actress imbues Emilie, a fiancée who’s willing to put up with Anatol’s incessant tests of her love, but only to a certain point, with both a swooning romance and a shocking acquisitiveness. And as the furious Ilona, who’s had the misfortune to spend the night with Anatol at a most inopportune time, MacDougall is hilarious, wreaking havoc on his well-appointed apartment.

When you read the play, you may think of Anatol as slim and elegant, sort of like Algernon or Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest. Actor Mike Ryan is stout, possesses thinning hair, and sports a walrus-y mustache. Yet he possesses impeccable diction and uses his body expressively. When he hears something shocking from Max, his body turns from the hips, his neck held stiff, and he leans slightly backwards, the very definition of “reeling.” He shifts from outrage to cunning to earnestness within the confines of a single line. Ryan uses emphasis in surprising ways, such as accenting the second syllable of the name “Cora,” to underscore comically the infatuation that he mistakes for love. He’s a force of both nature and intellect, and you can see why he fascinates these women. He’s amazing at the difficult job of showing us Anatol’s self-deception, but letting us know that on a deeper level, Anatol is aware of his own games. He can con anyone, even himself, and it’s his belief in these cons that makes him so intriguing.

As Max, Tim Kniffin is slim and elegant, with an aquiline nose and a well-cut head of gray hair, immaculately put together. He’s slightly older than Anatol, which puts him at a slight remove from the younger man’s shenanigans. He’s clearheaded in his judgments, amused by his friend’s antics, but he also clearly knows whose side he’s on, even avenging Anatol when one old flame confesses that Anatol meant nowhere near as much to her as she to him. As the sly observer, Kniffin’s movements are and stiller, less animated than Ryan’s, and it’s perfect for the character.  Wiley Naman Stasser portrays Franz, Anatol’s manservant, and a waiter at the Sacher Hotel (whose famous torte makes an appearance), with a proud, upright bearing, weathering Anatol’s momentary tantrums and conspiring in his amorous plots with aplomb.

Schaeffer’s translation seems natural and unforced, modern, yet period-appropriate.  Only one phrase stuck out for me, when Max describes one of the women as “…a revenging fury who wants to avenge herself on all of us.” The repetition of the “-venge” root is jarring. (Frank Marcus translates the line as “…a figure from classical tragedy. One who tried to avenge her whole sex,” which seems more successful to me.)

Anna Oliver’s costumes are gorgeous and ingenious, especially in MacDougall’s case. A blood red skirt becomes a winter coat, an evening gown, and a chorus girl’s after-theater ensemble. The set, by John Iacovelli, features a rotating portal that enables rapid scene changes, shifting from Anatol’s blue drawing room with a bay window, to Max’s red den, to an exterior shop window, or a hotel’s private dining room. (I am curious about the decision to make Anatol’s room blue and Max’s red. It seems that reversing that scheme would better suit their characters.)

The show is perfectly calibrated by director Oliver, shifting seamlessly from farce to gentle sorrow, from humorous artifice to art, getting at the evanescence, the elusiveness, of love. The Aurora’s production of Anatol tells us that love can evaporate under the heat of observation and analysis, but knows that we can’t help looking anyway.


Annie (MacDougall) lets neither decorum nor the end of an affair get in the way of her dinner. (Photo: David Allen)

Anatol plays from now until May 13 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For more information, call 510-843-4822 or visit

Not in this Lifetime: ACT’s “Once in a Lifetime”

May (Julia Coffey), George (Patrick Lane), and Jerry (John Wernke) strike out for the West. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 glorious hard-boiled comedy Once in a Lifetime is a classic of American theater that rarely gets done, largely because of the huge cast required to pull it off.  The 1930 Broadway production had 37 actors in the play’s more than 50 roles, while a 1978 revival (starring John Lithgow and Treat Williams) had a 29-person ensemble.  Having been in a production in college that utilized about 30 actors, I was excited to see that ACT would be presenting the play as this season’s opening production.  I was astonished to read that director Mark Rucker would be attempting to mount the show with a 15-member ensemble.  How could that possibly work?

In this case, the answer is, unfortunately, not well.  There are several terrific performances, and the solid construction of Kaufman and Hart’s hilarious script does shine through, but the play’s many scenes of overlapping dialog and seeming chaos need to be as finely tuned as a watch assembly.  Rucker seems to think he can get by with just throwing stuff on stage and seeing what sticks, and the big, noisy scenes are muddy instead of crisp.

The script shares a setting and many plot similarities with the later movie Singin’ in the Rain:  Three down-on-their-luck vaudevillians hatch a get-rich quick scheme after one of their number sees Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and realizes that the silent movie’s days are over.  They decide to cash in their savings and go to Hollywood to open an elocution school, teaching all those silent film stars how to talk. In this trio, Jerry Hyland is the dreamer; his paramour May Daniels is the tough, practical one; and George Lewis is, well, the dumb one.  Once in California, ego-driven, schizophrenic Hollywood takes the trio to vertiginous heights as well as breathtaking lows.

Idiot-savant George (we know he’s an idiot, Hollywood mistakes him for a savant) is wonderfully portrayed by Patrick Lane, whose large, doughy features beam a guileless delight as he tries (and generally fails) to comprehend all that’s going on around him.  (The script’s genius is that George only ever latches on to a few key phrases and is occasionally blessed by being able to repeat them at exactly the right moment.)  John Wernke, as the schemer Jerry who goes Hollywood big time when given the chance, has real presence and a great look, and he wears his period clothes immaculately, but the one thing missing from his performance is any chemistry with his leading lady, Julia Coffey as May.  This is not entirely his fault.  Coffey understands the period and the style, and she’s clearly a talented actress, but she seems to have a good ten years on both George and Jerry, an issue not helped by the hideous wigs she has to wear.  (Her first one looks like you could grate nutmeg on it.  Who’d she piss off on the costume staff?)  Lane and Wernke both have the smooth, slightly unformed look of youth, while Coffey possesses the sinewy toughness of a mid- to late- career dancer who exercises ferociously. This May and Jerry just don’t match up.

There are other problems.  With a 15-member cast, Rucker resorts to a lot of stunt-casting in assigning multiple roles to each actor. Three of the cast members appear in drag: in two cases (Jason Frank as a starlet and Margo Hall as both a porter and a studio exec), it’s a fleeting distraction, but in the third case, Nick Gabriel as studio head Herman Glogauer’s secretary Miss Leighton, it’s a real mistake. Gabriel has a heavy beard, which no amount of make-up can conceal.  A Miss Leighton with 5:00 shadow doesn’t really work. Rucker then allows Gabriel free reign to give a drag-diva performance.  He sports a Louise Brooks-style bob, a long, flowing black deco-style dress (also a mistake: the dress is more 30s than 20s), and a sort of crouching, show-horse walk.  Gabriel is extremely funny, but he becomes the center of focus in all his scenes. Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther), the playwright-turned-scenarist stand-in for the actual playwrights, both of whom performed the role at various times, isn’t allowed to make any impression at all in his first appearance opposite Miss Leighton, and the plot (and show) is thrown off-balance.

In some non-traditional casting, Margo Hall, the actress who was so wonderful in the Aurora’s Trouble in Mind, plays Mrs. Walker, the somewhat addled mother of would-be starlet Susan Walker (whom George takes a shine to).  There would be a better chance of success if the production’s Susan, Ashley Wickett, were also African-American, but even so, Hall is surprisingly bad in the role.  She moves her body awkwardly and purposelessly and seems to be experimenting with her vocalizations as we watch.  And Wickett, in what should be a very funny role, is bland and leaves no impression whatsoever.  (The only laugh she earns is a result of the script, not her acting.)

As the two silent-film starlets with horrendous speaking voices, Marissa Duchowny and Jessica Kitchens make their first appearance clambering ungainly up hotel lobby stairs, and this is another error on Rucker’s part.  Silent film stars with lousy voices could nevertheless move with real elegance.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been stars.  Thus, when we first see them, we think they’re would-be starlets, not established actors, and furthermore, their speaking voices aren’t horrendous enough.  (You need to feel the impact of how terrible their speech is from their first words.) Duchowney adopts a pallid imitation of Lina Lamont, the ill-voiced villainess in Singin’ in the Rain, while Kitchens throws on some Carol Channing-style sibilants that don’t project well.  Kitchens does redeem herself later in a film clip that’s projected to cover a scene change.  It’s a purported screen test of her character Florabel Leigh repeatedly massacring a bit of Shakespeare.  It’s actually the funniest thing in the show, but it points out that her adopted impediment works in a movie close-up, but not in a theater as large as the Geary.

In the other major roles, Crother is actually quite good as the quintessentially sane Lawrence Vail, who nevertheless has to check into a sanitarium, and this despite the staging errors Rucker makes in allowing the character to be overshadowed by Miss Leighton.  René Augesen once again gives a marvelous performance as gossip columnist Helen Hobart.  She keeps pawing at Lane’s chest while expressing her respect for “Dr.” Lewis’s intellect, after he’s parroted bits of her own column back to her.  As Herman Glogauer, Will LeBow doesn’t have an explosive-enough temper, and Kevin Rolston could stand to be a little more outrageous as the German import, film director Rudolph Kammerling.

Daniel Ostling’s sets are quite handsome, especially the railroad car that takes the trio to Hollywood and takes May back again.  Alex Jaeger’s costumes are serviceable and occasionally very pretty, but he doesn’t do enough to distinguish between the various roles that the men play, the wigging is often ugly, and as mentioned above, Miss Leighton’s dress belongs to another period and another play.

As a final insult to his cast, Rucker has them involved in a tap number for their bows.  It’s a funny idea, but to pull it off, you need actual dancers.  (You also need to hear the dance.  The stage floor here muffles the taps.)  Unfortunately, most of the ensemble taps gamely but ineptly.

Despite some genuinely entertaining moments and performances, there’s not a lot at stake in Once in a Lifetime if you don’t believe May and Jerry care for each other and that Jerry’s infatuation with Hollywood leads to a real betrayal of May’s love.  Instead, you’re stuck with an underpopulated show that plods and stumbles when it should tap merrily.

Helen Hobart (René Augesen) confers with Miss Leighton (Nick Gabriel). (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Once in a Lifetime continues through October 16, 2011 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  For ticket information call 415-834-3200 or go to

Fairy Tales from Afar: The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain come to New York

Both the National Theater of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company were present in New York this summer. I saw two of the RSC’s efforts as well as the National’s smash production of War Horse. All three plays have a fairytale atmosphere wherein humanism and magic work together. The productions captured this with varying degrees of success.

In the first RSC mounting I saw, a priest prepared to conduct the marriage ceremony by wielding a burning cross. A maid was tortured and beaten until she confessed where her mistress fled. In a brutal combat scene, blood was smeared on the stage floor and scenery. Which play of Shakespeare’s contains these atrocities? Titus Andronicus? Well, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company, it’s that well-known drama about the horrors of tyranny, As You Like It. Romance? Comedy? Forget it. That stuff’s secondary. Which is why this production’s Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill) and Rosalind (Katy Stephens) are such a charmless, unalluring pair. Director Michael Boyd (who is also, god help us, the artistic director of the RSC) stages an all out war against the script and the audience. Set and costume designer Tom Piper provides a floor and backdrop of whitewashed boards for both the court and the Forest of Arden scenes. We know it’s the Forest when lots of mud gets tracked on the stage. (The supposedly enticing Arden is here portrayed as charmless and filthy as the country cottage in Bruce Robinson’s’s 1987 movie Withnail and I.)

There is no joy in Mudville: Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and company try to manufacture some anyway. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Boyd allows only the clown Touchstone (Richard Katz, sporting a straitjacket and a Bozo-ish haircut) to attempt to be funny (he fails), and he keeps the clown’s big speeches intact for some reason, never a good idea. (The Act V monologs on the “seventh cause,” extremely tiresome and largely incomprehensible to an audience, are presented in their entirety. Yawn.)

Boyd’s choices throughout are unfathomable. Why the burning cross at Touchstone and Audrey’s first thwarted attempt at marriage? Because a burning swastika would have been in bad taste? In the performance I saw, the incredibly violent wrestling match between the Duke’s wrestler Charles (David Carr) and Orlando resulted in a genuine injury: When O’Neill smashed Carr’s head into the back wall, a smear of actual blood resulted and stayed there until intermission. In an ensuing scene, Carr had to appear with a bloody, bandaged forehead, even though he was no longer playing the wrestler.

There are moments when Shakespeare’s dialog shines through the miseries imposed by Boyd, and the first glimpse of Jaques is funny (Forbes Masson looks like a Goth version of the late comedian Sam Kinison), but then he starts singing in a dirge-like countertenor, and we’re back in Dullsville. As You Like It has never been so unlikeable.

The RSC visited New York this summer in an unprecedented five-week engagement. Co-presented by Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory (in association with Ohio State University), the performances took place within a replica of the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon theater constructed entirely within the Armory’s drill hall. It sounds impressive, but the reality was that the seats were uncomfortable and fully half allowed only a partial view of the stage. This was possibly a boon to seeing As You Like It.

I thus dreaded seeing their take on The Winter’s Tale. Often considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, if taken in fairytale terms, there’s actually no problem at all. A horrifying curse of madness descends on the Sicilian court when King Leontes becomes convinced (against all evidence) that his pregnant wife Hermione is having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. The king’s desertion of rational thought causes him to plot Polixenes’ death, to imprison his wife, and to bring appalling destruction upon his kingdom. His wife dies soon after childbirth, he commands that the infant be abandoned to the wilds, and his older son and heir dies of grief over the chaos sown by the King’s madness. Leontes awakens to his senses, but too late, and the devastated court and kingdom essentially slumber in sorrowful stupor for 16 years.

The awakening occurs with the arrival of the abandoned infant, Perdita, now a young woman, raised in ignorance of her origins by a Bohemian shepherd and his family. Perdita has affianced herself to Polixenes’ son, Florizel. But Polixenes is appalled his son has become smitten with a lowly shepherdess, and the couple flees to Sicilia, where all is made right. That “all is made right” doesn’t begin to describe the miracles Shakespeare provides in this beautiful, wondrous play, one of the great humanistic works of art.

Hermione (Kelly Hunter) celebrates her friends and family before the cataclysm. (Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)

Director David Farr’s magnificent staging of the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale was a relief and a joy. Set and costume designer Jon Bausor created an opulent, Regency-era dining room, sumptuously set for a holiday feast, complete with shimmering Christmas crackers at each place setting. Flanking the table and dominating the set were two large and imposing bookcases stocked with innumerable volumes. A large chandelier, a clear hemisphere with wrought iron details, hung over the table.

The opening scene is one of happy and wealthy domesticity as the pregnant Hermione (Kelly Hunter) looks upon her family and guests. Things go horribly awry when Leontes (Greg Hicks) becomes struck with a jealous psychosis and commands his friend and subject Camillo (John Mackay) to kill Polixenes (Darrell D’Silva). Camillo, rather than obey his King’s mad commands, warns Polixenes and flees with him.

As Leontes, Hicks gives a towering performance, bringing a Lear-like intensity to the mad certainty that rules his actions. (In fact, Hicks also played Lear at this summer’s RSC New York residency, a performance I wish I’d been able to see.) Hicks emanates intelligence as an actor, which makes his raging passion even more horrific. He brooks no opposition to his mad conviction, however rationally spoken. Leontes is persuaded to have the Oracle of Apollo consulted, but he dismisses the Oracle’s judgment when it condemns him. The entire court looks on in horror as he pronounces Hermione, brought from her prison after giving birth, guilty. As Hermione, Hunter at first hides her blood-and-birth-stained clothes, but as the horror of her situation grows, the makeshift covering she’s holding drops, and we understand her pain completely as we see the evidence of what she’s endured, forced to give birth unattended in a prison cell, only to have the child immediately taken away from her.

King Leontes (Greg Hicks) begins to find his life amiss. (Photo: Alessandro Evangelista)

Farr and his cast handle all of this magnificently. Leonte’s insanity is appalling and awful, and there’s nothing anyone can do. Even the most capable member of his court, Paulina (the rich-voiced Noma Dumezweni) is unable to move the King. Helplessness is writ large on the face of every actor, and the tension is electric. When Leontes comprehends his own madness (too late, after the death of his wife and son, and after the banishment of his infant daughter), he staggers under the weight of his actions, and opening the upstage doors, he lets in a roaring gale. The bookcases fall over, disgorging their volumes, and the chandelier crashes onto the floor. Leonte’s kingdom is wrecked physically as well as spiritually and morally. Farr viscerally, brilliantly brings home the damage done.

When the scene shifts to the island where Antigonus (David Rubin),Paulina’s husband, has brought the infant Perdita to be abandoned, Shakespeare’s famous bear, the instrument of Antigonus’ death, appears, a spectacular, large puppet (designed by Steve Tiplady), created out of the pages of the fallen books. Leontes abandoned rationality, and the very instruments of rational thought, unbound and loosed, gather to revenge themselves on Leontes’ friend. It’s a stunning moment.

Other productions of The Winter’s Tale I’ve seen have handled the Sicilian Court scenes well (never as well as this production) and then have stumbled in the Bohemian scenes of Act IV. The pastoral interludes are presented as either boring business that must be gotten through, or else as manic party scenes that throw off the rhythms of the play. (A Cal Shakes production I saw unsuccessfully staged Bohemia as a wild 1960s “happening.”)

This time out, I never experienced a greater disparity between the quality of the first three acts and Act IV. I’d like to believe it was a different director altogether who staged the Bohemia scenes, because the only way to account for the defiling mess presented here is that Farr was struck with a madness almost as great as Leontes’. His Florizel (the handsome Tunji Kasim) and Perdita (the regrettably unappealing Samantha Young) have no chemistry and worse, no facility with the language. The rascal clown Autolycus (Brian Doherty) is charmless, and the design falters, too. The costumes suddenly contain contemporary elements (e.g., athletic shoes) for no good reason, and the fallen bookcases and books are left in heaps on the floor. But the worst is when the dance of shepherds and shepherdesses is presented. The actors wear open books as headpieces, and are clothed in arrangements of loose-leaf pages so that they look like shaggy blobs. Also, they all have large, red-tipped penises that they manipulate as part of the dance. Yes, you read that right.

The play does get back on track for Act V, but the disasters of Act IV linger as you puzzle out what the director could have been thinking, and the work of the cast in Act V is unfairly tainted by the preceding travesties. Farr and his cast are masterful dealing with the tragic and fairytale elements of this great play, but brief as the comic and pastoral sequences are, his disastrous handling of them is so unsettling that the genius of the rest the production is ultimately undercut. If Act IV had merely been boring, you could better overlook its failure, but because Farr’s conception and direction are both inept and so confoundedly wrongheaded, you can’t quite forgive the damage it does to this otherwise spectacular mounting.

Over at a much more comfortable venue, Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beamont Theater (where both The Light in the Piazza and the recent revival of South Pacific played), Britain’s National Theatre has exported their production of War Horse to our shores. I was actually hesitant to see this adaptation of a young adult novel (by Michael Morpurgo) where the horses are life-sized puppets. I feared it might be gimmicky and sentimental. I could not have been more wrong.

The soldier Müller (Peter Hermann) calms a terrified horse. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is miraculous—emotionally overwhelming from its very first scenes. The horses, designed and built by the Handspring Puppet Company and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick, are abstract and constructivistic in design and no attempt is made to hide the puppeteers manipulating them. But the animals are so extraordinarily lifelike in movement, you believe wholeheartedly in their existence.

The story is simple: In a Devonshire farming village, a drunken father foolishly bids on and purchases a thoroughbred horse, spending desperately needed money on something unneeded. His 16-year old son falls in love with and worships the horse. When the horse is drafted for cavalry service in the trenches of World War I, the boy lies about his age and enlists so that he can find the horse again.

That’s basically the entire story, but that brief description doesn’t do justice to the show’s reverberations, undercurrents, and themes. Encapsulating the technological innovations that brought such overwhelming destruction to the War to End All Wars and opposing them to the old-fashioned and outmoded idea of a cavalry horse (and by symbolic extension, to the soldiers themselves) resonates with both beauty and horror. Of what use is a horse against machine guns, barbed wire, and noxious gas, the play asks. And of course, it also asks of what use is a man against such deadly machinery. But the show also understands that use and value are two different things, and while either horse or man may be ineffectual, their value is limitless and incalculable.

The entire experience is as elemental and entrancing as Carole Ballard’s majestic 1983 film of The Black Stallion. (Steven Spielberg is set to direct the film adaptation of War Horse, and although its very good material for him, he will have his work cut out equaling the theatrical experience.) The entire cast is magnificent, but I would single out the work of four performers. Seth Numrich as Albert Narracott, the boy in love with a horse, possesses both a gentleness and a steely resolve. Alyssa Bresnahan as the boy’s longsuffering mother, owns a voice that echoes with earthy richness and timeless wisdom. Peter Hermann, familiar from his many appearances on Law & Order: SVU (he is also married to Mariska Hargitay), plays the sympathetic German soldier Friedrich Müller, who cares for both the horse and a lost French girl who reminds him of his daughter, with a touching and lucid simplicity. And as Emilie, that lost French girl, the young Madeleine Rose Yen gives an astonishing performance. Her French is impeccable, she projects to the rafters, and she radiates an aura of feral terror as the girl separated from her mother, roaming the shattered countryside.

Adrian Sutton’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design are also integral to the experience, as are Rae Smith’s sets, costumes, and projected drawings. (It’s a glorious irony that a show which is tangentially about the dehumanizing effects of technology employs technology so masterfully.)

War Horse is almost unbearably beautiful and heartbreaking, a fairy tale both simple and epic.

Emilie (Madeleine Rose Yen) finds a moment of peace in No Man's Land. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

The RSC productions have closed. War Horse continues its open-ended run at Lincoln Center in the Vivian Beaumont Theater. An American tour of the play is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles next summer, coming to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in August of 2012. For tickets and other information, go to For tickets in San Francisco go to

Dogma Doo: “The Book of Mormon”

Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad) spread the Word. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Broadway’s The Book of Mormon is a certified mega-success. Created by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, the show won a passel of Tonys a few months ago, upped its prices so that it’s now the most expensive ticket on Broadway, and is sold out until 2012. Ben Brantley of the New York Times led the unanimous acclaim by proclaiming it the “the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century.” (Somehow, his parenthetical comment doesn’t do quite enough to curb the hyperbole.) It’ll run for years.

I loved Stone and Parker’s 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Full of crassness and obscenity and genuine wit, this satire of American mores and myths is one of the great movie musicals, beautifully constructed and magnificently, hilariously scored (by Parker and Marc Shaiman, who went on to do Hairspray and the new Catch Me If You Can). Impossibly smart, it’s also unbelievably funny. With a pastiche of songs that satirized Les Miz, The Little Mermaid, and the excesses of contemporary pop, as well as displaying a genuine affection for traditional Broadway razzmatazz, it demonstrated an exquisite knowledge of musical comedy conventions and construction. So of course, I (along with the rest of the world) looked forward to seeing their attempts at a genuine Broadway musical.

Almost no one has had a single negative comment about The Book of Mormon. Even the Mormon Church released a surprisingly measured response: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” I tend to be wary of critical consensus, although sometimes it’s warranted: The Producers and Hairspray are cases in point. The shows, when I finally got to see them, met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reviews. With The Book of Mormon I was hoping I’d be able to join the general huzzahs.

But as I sat in the Eugene O’Neill theatre, watching the carefully calibrated and choreographed (in all senses of the word) spectacle proceed, a creeping sense of disappointment began to set in. The crudeness and obscenity didn’t seem fresh so much as tiresome and strained. The set-up isn’t especially clever, nor is it especially fair. The Mormon Church gets off rather lightly (though not its dogma, which deserves what it gets), but the production’s treatment of Africa, more specifically Uganda, where the two young Mormon protagonists are sent on their mission, doesn’t sit well. Using the ravages of AIDS, poverty, warlord tyranny, and sexual violence as vehicles for musical comedy requires a finer sensibility than Stone and Parker’s. (One of the few things that worked in their 2004 comic marionette movie Team America: World Police, was the song “Everyone Has AIDS,” from the fictitious Broadway musical Lease. But in this case, Stone and Parker weren’t dealing with the plight of AIDS victims, they were puncturing the fatuousness of Rent, a ripe target.)

To be fair, much of the show is genuinely hilarious, and the score has several highlights, especially at the beginning. “You and Me (but Mostly Me)” zings Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” (in about half the time of the original) as Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), the golden boy of his particular class of missionaries, sings of the things he’ll accomplish, as long as the screw-up assigned to accompany him, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), stays out of his way. Several numbers have a peppy Up-with-People hokiness that gives the audience a feel-good buzz even as they laugh at the material. (“Two by two, / We’re marching door to door! / ‘Cause God loves Mormons/ And he wants some more.”) But things begin going wrong with one of the more infamous songs, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (a spoof of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”). “Eebowai” gives away its joke (what the phrase actually means) too soon and then goes on trying to top it with relentless (and unfunny) crudeness. The show and song would be better served with the punch line saved for the song’s end.

The comedy rule of three is no longer of any use to Stone and Parker. They too often bludgeon you with repeated jokes. One character’s complaint of a maggot-infested scrotum is repeatedly endlessly. “Clitoris” and “clit” are mentioned incessantly, and barely a minute goes by where the F-word isn’t spoken. (In the South Park movie, the truly fabulous song “Uncle Fucker,” a joyous orgy of F-bombs, worked because it came out of the blue. Nothing prepared you for it, and it was genuinely shocking as well as riotous. You couldn’t quite believe you’d heard what you just heard.) And quite frankly, the creators’ decision to set the show in Uganda is a large part of why the crudeness and obscenities don’t work. Stone, Parker, and Lopez clearly wanted a locale where the problems were too huge, too overwhelming, for the consolations of Mormonism, but piling on compulsory female circumcision, AIDS, and numerous other African miseries, expecting us to laugh at their repeated mentions, is just too much.

Elder Price sings the sweeping, very funny anthem, “I Believe,” in an attempt to convert the evil warlord who’s made life hell for the village where the missionaries have been assigned (“And I believe!/ That in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” the chorus echoing soulfully “Black people!” and “I believe! /That God lives on a planet called Kolob!”) But at the conclusion, the warlord’s response takes place with the lights down, and because we don’t trust the writers, we assume from Elder Price’s screams that something truly terrible is happening. (We assume he’s being raped.) What actually happens isn’t revealed until several scenes later, and it turns out to be a crass joke that might have been funny with cartoon protagonists, but doesn’t seem so funny when embodied by actual people.

There are other problems as well. Directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also did the choreography) don’t properly delineate the other Ugandan missionaries (most of them are indistinguishable), so in the song “Turn It Off,” a paean to the glories of repression, you can’t keep track of which Mormon is which, and whose story is whose. When Elder Price has his moment of doubt, the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is clumsily staged and confusedly designed. (It’s an excess of ridiculousness that puzzles more than it delights.)

For the first-act finale (“Man Up”) they rely on a device used in the South Park movie, (and borrowed from Les Miz and countless other musicals) where strains and phrases from all the songs we’ve already heard show up in medley and in counterpoint. But here the tunes don’t mesh as well as they did in South Park, and the score feels forced and awkward. And in “Joseph Smith, American Moses,” a number that goes on way too long, and in which we’re meant to find hilarious all the obscenities we’ve already heard too many times, the villagers enact a pageant on Mormonism for some Church higher-ups. (The number’s inspiration: the far more charming “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” from The King and I.)

Andrew Rannells seems born to play the part of Kevin Price, the star Mormon pupil from whom big things are expected. Tall, blandly non-threateningly handsome, clean-cut, he possesses a broad face, large white teeth and perfect hair. Dressed in the emblematic short-sleeved white shirt, black tie, and high-waisted black trousers, he’s the essence of the white (really white) Mormon missionary—earnestness personified. (Irony is a foreign language to Elder Price.) He also sings in a nasal, square, slightly dorky voice, but which has surprising range and control. Faith, fervor, and idealism beam from his eyes, and his inevitable crises of belief are both touching and funny.

Unfortunately, I was less taken with Josh Gad’s performance as Arnold Cunningham, the screw-up assigned to be partners with Elder Price. (Cunningham serves the same function as the role of George Lewis in Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime—the idiot successful in spite of himself.) Cunningham is a chunky, attention-deficit-disordered geek, who has never actually read the Book he’s supposed to be preaching. He’s also prone to outrageous lies whenever he feels slightly uncomfortable. Gad is willing to do anything for a laugh. He throws his voice around, alternating between weird, Peewee-Herman-esque vocalizations, full-voiced yells, and hiccup-y giggles. But manic, comic craziness is not a character choice, and his Cunningham remains a collection of tics, spasms, and impulse control problems that never gels into a real person (even within the confines of Stone, Parker, and Lopez’s insane world).

Nikki M. James has a winning sweetness as the village girl who becomes the first convert (she also has a hell of a voice), and the rest of the cast is talented and game.

The show’s eventual “thesis” (the fact there is a thesis is a big part of why the show disappoints) is that as long as you don’t take the dogma too seriously, all religions are equivalent and can actually be helpful, no matter how far-fetched their particular scriptures and strictures. Without giving too much of the plot away, the villagers are taken in by Elder Cunningham’s ridiculous embellishments of the Book of Mormon, (which he hasn’t read, remember)—a combination of popular sci-fi movies involving lots of frog-fucking (don’t ask)—and their lives are made better. Improbably so, even for a Stone and Parker creation. Christopher Durang eviscerated Catholic dogma in his hilarious one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Stone, Parker and Lopez do the same on a smaller scale for Mormonism, but at play’s end they wimp out, dismissing the tragedies of Africa and shrugging their shoulders with a “hey, dude: it’s all good” message. This time out, it ain’t.

The missionaries take a detour through "The Lion King" on their way to Uganda.

The Book of Mormon will play forever at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York. It’s effectively sold-out, but there are some standing-room and lottery tickets available at each performance. More information can be found at

Troika Travesty: Berkeley Rep’s “Three Sisters”

Irina (Heather Wood) tries to wash off the stink while Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) realizes it ain't comin' off. (Photo courtesy of

Over in Berkeley, a conspiracy is happening eight times a week.  Director Les Waters and adaptor/playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)) have plotted to produce a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters bereft of beauty, delicacy, and artistry, substituting a crass, clanging mess in place of one of the great masterpieces of world theater.  I have seen many bad or misguided productions of Chekhov, but I’ve never seen anything to rival this abomination.  It’s like watching a production of Streetcar adapted and directed by Stanley Kowalski. Waters and Ruhl apparently believe that if Chekhov were alive today, he’d be a staff writer for “Two and Half Men.”  (Chekhov was bi-winning, man.)

Why does Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) announce he’s going to play the piano and then crash his hands down discordantly on the keyboard and then yuk it up like it’s not something an ill-behaved child does?  Why does Masha (Natalia Payne) keep saying “Goddammit”?  Why is Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) so boring and dowdy?  Why is Natasha (Emily Kitchens) played as a twitchy, goggle-eyed circus freak, unbecomingly got up in pink gingham? Why, when the men dance and sing, are they so loud and clumsy, knocking over drinking glasses?  No wonder Natasha wants them the hell out of the house.  Why do almost none of the actors appear to know anything about naturalistic acting, declaiming in monotones, with odd pauses?  Is this supposed to be some sort of Commedia Dell’Arte version of Three Sisters, God help us all?  Do Waters and Ruhl actually believe Chekhov wrote this play about a bunch of buffoons?

It seems that the creative (term used extremely loosely) team feels deeply that portraying a character as unhappy on stage will drive the audience away, or will be undramatic, or something, so all the good folks in Three Sisters are rendered as bat-shit crazy instead.  (‘Cause it’s funny, man!  And Chekhov wrote comedies, man!  Just ask him!) I sat through the first two acts with my mouth open, jaw dropped as far as it could go, stupefied.  I did not sit through the last two acts, my urge to make the pain stop overcoming my curiosity as to how people who think that the Prozorov family was a precursor to Al and Peg Bundy would handle the tragedies of the third and fourth acts.

Is there anything good about this production?  Annie Smart’s set is both rustic and elegant, using blonde wood and blue panels.  Alex Moggridge attempts to give a performance as Andrei, the put-upon brother to the three sisters.  But as Ruhl has the good doctor Chebutykin (James Carpenter) say: “Ah, who gives a shit?”  (And yes, that is actually a line that the celebrated playwright Sarah Ruhl thinks is appropriate for a production of Chekhov.  She’s a genius and she’s got the grant to prove it!)

In the program notes, Ruhl writes, “I am sorry, Anton, for any havoc I have wreaked….” Some things are unforgiveable.

Hey, it don't look so bad in this pic! And yet it is. (From left to right: Natalia Payne, Heather Wood, and Wendy Rich Stetson. Photo courtesy of

Three Sisters plays through May 22, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA.  To purchase tickets, call 510-647-2949 or go to But why, WHY, would you ever do such a thing?

The Caged Bird Sings: Aurora Theatre’s “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale”

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) encounters John (Thomas Gorrebeeck) at a Fourth of July celebration. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Tennessee William’s 1961 reworking of his earlier Summer and Smoke, is one of his masterpieces, residing just beneath A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana in achievement.  It is also, unfortunately, one of his lesser-known and less-produced plays.  The schematic and much inferior Summer and Smoke is mounted far more often, and productions of The Glass Menagerie, a play that hints at greatness but falls well short, seem to pop up every other month, as inevitable and tenacious as crabgrass.  (Next in line to break the horn off that damn unicorn: Marin Theater Company, Fall 2011.)

My first experience with Eccentricities, reading it in college, left me unimpressed.  I read it immediately after Summer and Smoke, and the earlier play’s heavy-handedness bled into my experience of the later.  It wasn’t until many years later, when I saw the terrific television production with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella that I realized its greatness.

I thus eagerly awaited the Aurora Theatre’s production, directed by the skilled and talented Tom Ross.  And when I heard that the wonderful Beth Wilmurt would play Alma Winemiller, the “Nightingale of the Delta,” my hopes were raised almost impossibly high.  (This blog is in real danger of becoming a Wilmurt fan site.)  So it’s with real enthusiasm I can report that the Aurora’s production is wonderful: delicate, poetic, immensely moving, and gorgeously acted and directed.

The character of Alma Winemiller is the heart and soul of the play.  (“Alma means soul in Spanish,” she tells a stranger.)  A singing teacher in the small provincial town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma possesses such depths of feeling and emotion that she can’t help but manifest them physically: she talks too much, she talks too loud, her hands flutter about, she’s awkward and needy. She’s desperate for connection, for beauty, and for meaning.  In love with the handsome boy next door, a recent medical school graduate from Johns Hopkins, she does her best to hide her desire, but she fools no one, especially the boy’s mother, whose own sense of suffocation in this small town causes her to live too much through her son.

The play is set just before World War I, and one of the shocking things is the utter lack of nostalgia in Williams’ vision.  We’re not used to seeing people in turn-of-the-century finery dealing with the messiness and reality of sex.  (In most novels of the period, people get married and babies magically come.)  Alma’s tragedy is also in some sad, small, scandalous way her triumph as well.  In giving up her dreams of love, she, the daughter of a pious minister and a mentally disturbed mother, doesn’t also give up on sex.  She gets her moments of connection where she can. Trapped in her claustrophobic community, with its populace mostly concerned with convention, she makes her way as best she can and Williams’ not only refuses to condemn her for it, he loves her for her bravery.

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) seeks treatment for her palpitations from John (Thomas Gorrebeeck). (Photo: David Allen)

Wilmurt is spectacular.  (Is she the best actress around?  It sure seems that way to me.)  At the play’s opening, she took me aback somewhat. Alma sings at a Fourth of July function, and Wilmurt has a gorgeous voice, but this time there was a strain I haven’t heard before.  It wasn’t until a later scene, when she performs at home for that boy next door, Dr. John Buchanan (Thomas Gorrebeeck) (“Sacred or profane?” she asks, referring to the type of song he’d like to hear.  “Profane,” he answers), and her voice is relaxed and clear, that I realized just how carefully Wilmurt had calibrated that opening performance, how the strain was the character’s, not the actor’s.

What makes her performance so amazing is the restraint with which Wilmurt portrays Alma’s awkwardness, self-consciousness and desperation.  She emphasizes Alma’s courage, her ability to go on day after day, when only unhappiness stretches before her.  Wilmurt’s Alma is rarely still, she’s busy planning, arranging, talking, hoping to make things come off well.  But Wilmurt is so inside the skin of this character, that she gives every gesture, every motion of Alma’s meaning and purpose.  When her hands flutter, they don’t flop around without direction—they move according to the myriad different, sometimes competing impulses within Alma. Wilmurt projects Alma’s rapid thoughts and emotional changes physically, through movement.  Her scattered motions aren’t awkward to the audience, though we understand how they are to the other characters; Wilmurt uses her body to make Alma’s soul tangible to us.

Of the many heartbreaking yet lovely scenes is a gathering of fellow arts lovers to which she invites John.  Before he comes, she tries to tamp down the groups’ peculiarities, and you can tell she’s seeing the group through John’s eyes.  But rather than cancelling the whole thing then and there, she tries to make it as presentable as possible, delaying any discussion of the group’s manifesto in front of John, as well as avoiding a reading of one member’s epic-length verse play.  When the arts group’s members get too rambunctious, Alma calms them down by reading William Blake’s “Love’s Secret.”  Wilmurt recites it with a beautiful simplicity, and you can see why Alma interests John.

Earlier, Reverend Winemiller, Alma’s minister father, (the unbelievably good Charles Dean), in trying to help his unhappy daughter, tells her how the townspeople mock her and imitate her mannerisms, and it’s awful, awful, awful.  Wilmurt has Alma’s very skin seem to beg him to stop.  Pacing about, wringing her hands, Alma suffers physical pain facing the things about herself that she hates more deeply than any townsperson ever could.  Within herself, Alma already knows how her neighbors feel about her, and forcing her to acknowledge openly their behind-her-back mockery seems intolerably cruel, yet Dean makes it clear that Winemiller doesn’t know how else to help his daughter.  Wilmurt makes it clear that Alma can do nothing with this knowledge except suffer.

The Reverend Winemiller (Charles Dean) shares hard truths with his daughter. (Photo: David Allen)

To the smaller, and in some ways more difficult role of Mrs. Buchanan, John’s mother, Marcia Pizzo brings an astonishing depth and skill.  Mrs. Buchanan is a harridan, so fearful that John may fall into Alma’s grasp that she goes to often ludicrous lengths to keep her son away from Alma. But as Pizzo acts the role, Mrs. Buchanan recognizes too much of Alma in herself: Despite her seeming success (the town beauty, married to the town doctor, respected by all), she’s a woman as unhappy in her own way as Alma is.  She knows how dangerously close she might have come to Alma’s mannered eccentricities.  She’s achieved everything she was taught to want, and it’s not enough.  Her hopes and desires now reside in her son and she clutches him protectively; she believes he won’t be happy or successful if he stays in Glorious Hill, because she did and she isn’t.  He has to leave to achieve the dreams she has for him, and she knows he never will if he attaches himself to Alma.  Pizzo makes the woman more than a harridan: she makes her human.

As John, Gorrebeeck gives an extremely intelligent performance.  He lends the role a stillness and a watchfulness, and John becomes a shock-absorber for these two very different women nevertheless tied by common fears. He’s probably the only person who’s ever really listened to Alma, who’s ever really heard her.  He’s also no fool: He seems to tolerate his mother’s ministrations, but his attention to Alma is an act of rebellion towards his mother.  Unlike her, he knows that Alma is no danger to him.  He’s intrigued, but it’s an almost clinical interest, and he knows that he doesn’t love her.  (Alma, no fool herself, knows it too.)  In Center Rep’s mostly dreadful production of Dracula, Gorrebeeck appeared movie-star handsome, but here, he sports a mustache that somehow makes him more stolid and ordinary, good-looking but in a small-town way, and it’s absolutely right for the role.

Tom Ross handles his actors and the script beautifully—he understands its exquisite structures and moods.  The extreme thrust stage of the Aurora does provide an exciting intimacy with the actors and the play, but it presents some challenges Ross is unable to overcome. Wilmurt is in every scene of this play, and because the play’s done essentially in the round, of necessity there are times when Wilmurt has to have her back to some portion of the audience.  And since what you want to see most at any given moment is her face, you sometimes find yourself craning in your seat, hoping to get a better view of her features.

The design (lighting by Jim Cave; set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro) while on the whole lovely, does have an occasional problem: A gas lamp snaps on like an electric lamp, and there are difficulties suggesting fireplaces with the lighting in the first act scenes.  The fireplace screens are directly in front of the audience and the lighting meant to suggest flames doesn’t quite come across. In the penultimate scene, however, the fire flames, dies, and comes back to life suggestively and beautifully.

In the play’s heartbreaking final sequence, Alma asks a travelling salesman if he speaks Spanish.  “Un poquito,” he replies.  “Sometimes,” she responds, “un poquito is enough.”  For Alma, it has to be enough: It’s all she has, all she’s left with.  With this beautiful, tender and moving production, we’re left with much more than enough, a glimpse into the beauty that illuminates a small, seemingly wretched and insignificant life. And that’s everything.

Mrs. Buchanan (Marcia Pizzo) "rescues" her son from Alma. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale plays through May 8, 2011, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA, 94704.  For tickets and other information, call 510-843-4822 or go to