A New York Post writer named John Oleksinski recently wrote an article in which he chided Broadway producers for productions that charge big money but offer skimpy production values. Oleksinski claims that chintziness in scenery is based in a desire to cut budgets.
If you go to Broadway (or any theater) for the fun of great technical achievements, you may be sympathetic to his complaint. If you’re spending a couple hundred bucks, maybe you want that chandelier or helicopter effect. (But if that’s really what you want, maybe instead you should go to Las Vegas where they spend obscene amounts of money on that sort of thing.)
I enjoy being dazzled when the dazzling supports the content. I think of Peter J. Davison’s startling transition in the production Jonathan Kent did of Medea with Diana Rigg; I wouldn’t be surprised if it triggered a heart attack or two. Also the earthquake Ian MacNeil cooked up for Stephen Daldry’s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was both surprising and appropriate.
But I keep coming back to the basics of theater: actors doing something interesting that captures and holds the attention of an audience. You don’t absolutely need technical fireworks for that. What you need is performers playing the hell out of great material.
As I write this, I remind myself that the two books I have written about theaters both were about outfits that thrived on minimal tech. Something Wonderful Right Away (which will return in a second, expanded edition in June) is about Second City, a theater that originally had a stage so small there was only one entrance and scenes mostly were played on or around chairs. The O’Neill is about the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center which presents developmental readings. For years artistic director Lloyd Richards kept watch to make certain that no unnecessary props or scenic elements would distract from the text. He would challenge you to prove that anything more than chairs and cubes were required.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen a few productions onstage or video recordings of stage productions that have embraced minimalism.
Emily Feldman’s The Best We Could (directed by Daniel Aukin for the off-Broadway home of Manhattan Theater Club) features a convention familiar from both Second City and the O’Neill: staging a scene in a car by placing two actors side by side on wooden chairs. (Also phone calls with no phones in actors’ hands.) Aukin assumes we’re familiar with cars and phones and that we’ll fill this stuff in, and we do. One benefit? The ability to move from location to location in an instant. Or to place various characters in different locations simultaneously. Much of the play describes a cross-country trip a young woman (Aya Cash) takes with a father in crisis (Frank Wood). They check in often with her mother (Constance Shulman) as well as encountering a variety of supporting characters played by Maureen Sebastian, who also frequently supplies us in the audience with shards of information. The play begins deceptively with a domestic scene played in rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place at Second City. By the end, Feldman has brought us to a heartbreaking conclusion. OK, on the way, Aukin dumps a hundred or so balloons onto the stage, which has some of the same shock value as the earthquake Ian MacNeil contributed to An Inspector Calls. The excess of the balloons is especially shocking in contrast to the paucity of production elements onstage before then.
There’s another scenic coup de théâtre in Jamie Lloyd’s otherwise spare production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House currently playing on Broadway starring Jessica Chastain. I’m not going to spoil it by describing it, but it made the audience around me gasp. Otherwise, it’s actors, chairs and a turntable (also a ceiling that shifts elevation when Lloyd thinks appropriate). The actors mostly stay on or near their chairs. They are miked like rock singers so they don’t have to project. Indeed, given the miking, even the actors’ breaths are audible and contribute.
Counting the video version of his production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull on the National Theatre at Home streaming channel, this is the fourth Jamie Lloyd staging I’ve seen, and the fourth that has worked really well for me. The common denominator of the four has been his trust that the audience will collaborate. At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare wrote, “Let us … on your imaginary forces work.” It might well be Lloyd’s motto.
After all, an audience knows what it is watching isn’t literal. Even a set stuffed with persuasive props in a conventional production has only three walls, and real people don’t tend to talk loud in the direction of where there is no wall. The audience comes into a theater prepared to make allowances in order to have the fun of believing.
What Jamie Lloyd is doing is moving the line further into the metaphoric area. Even in a fairly modern staging of A Doll’s House, when Nora lights Dr. Rank’s cigar, we usually see a cigar and a match. Lloyd thinks it’s sufficient for the cigar and its lighting to be mentioned; he doesn’t bother with the actual props or action. Similarly, James McAvoy, the actor who played the title role in his production of Cyrano, didn’t have to sport the usual prosthetic nose much less engage in choreographed duels.
Lloyd is mostly interested in how the spacial relationships between characters convey the emotional field between them. Sometimes the spacial relationship in his staging is not realistic. In the scene in the second act of The Sea Gull between Nina and Trigorin (a scene of mutual seduction), as the actors playing these characters face each other, the actors playing Arkadina and Konstantin are positioned, unmoving, upstage from them, looking forward blankly. This suggests that, though they are not physically present as Nina and Trigorin converse, they are present in Nina and Trigorin’s minds. (It certainly keeps them present in the audience’s minds, as their partners begin the path that will lead to betrayal.)
An approach like this relieves a production of justifying entrances and exits and making excuses for the presence or absence of characters in any given scene. The inessential is stripped away and the characters and their relationships with each other have heightened importance.
While I’m referencing it, let me recommend the video of The Sea Gull, which is currently available through the National Theatre’s streaming site, The National Theatre at Home. Emilia Clarke, best known from her run on Game of Thrones, is uncommonly good at managing Nina’s transition from radiant innocent to wounded bird, and Indira Varma is one of the best Arkadinas of my experience.
As it happens, in New York the New Group is presenting The Sea Gull/Woodstock, NY, an adaptation by Thomas Bradshaw set today in the upstate town famous as a retreat for artists. Bradshaw announces early on that this isn’t your grandparent’s Sea Gull. Instead of the mystical ramblings about nature penned by Konstantin that Nina recites in front of a lake in the original, this Nina delivers a monologue on masturbation, challenging members of the audience to reveal when they last indulged. Some of the modern substitutions work and some go clunk, but the bones of the original play are still there, and they are pretty substantial bones. Parker Posey is this version’s Arkadina, and she has the mixture of wit, selfishness and flirtatiousness to do the character ample justice.
As much as I enjoyed the New Group’s version, it muddies what I take to be one of Chekhov’s central ideas – that character and talent are not necessarily linked. Konstantin and Nina are pure souls, idealists. But there is little evidence in what Chekhov wrote that they have much of a gift. The taste of Konstantin’s writing that we in the audience experience is windy and pretentious, and what we see of Nina suggests she has enthusiasm and not much technique. Arkadina and Trigorin are both selfish, crummy people who use others shamelessly, but they must have something to offer since Arkadina is in regular demand on the stage and Trigorin’s books are bestsellers. (The idea that Trigorin isn’t a good writer is based on Konstantin’s envy and Trigorin’s own self-doubts, and neither is a reliable judge of the work. Everybody else, including Nina, seems to think Trigorin is quite good.) In The Sea Gull, the people who deserve to be talented aren’t. It may not be fair, but it is the corrupt elders who have earned enthusiastic audiences. In Bradshaw’s adaptation, as directed by Scott Elliott, Aleyse Shannon’s performance of Nina’s performance is given confidently; she seems utterly at ease on the stage delivering the raunchy material. Our first impression is that she has talent. Later, we’re told that Kevin (as Bradshaw renames Konstantin) has a piece in the same issue of The Atlantic as William (a/k/a Trigorin). To be published in The Atlantic is a serious achievement in American literary circles. You can’t be a poseur and get into those pages. So Bradshaw has undermined central aspects of Chekhov’s original characterizations of the young people.
To return to Jamie Lloyd, seeing his versions of The Sea Gull and A Doll’s House in quick succession has made me realize afresh why I prefer Chekhov to Ibsen. A Doll’s House is based on contrivance. Nora’s friend Kristine has a romantic history with Krogstad who happens to be the man to whom Nora owes money, and Kristine happens to show up just as Nora’s dealings with Krogstad come to crisis. (Also, after Nora’s husband Torvald fires Krogstad, he happens to hire Kristine to take Krogstad’s old job.) It’s all way too coincidental. Of course, it builds to that sensational final confrontation between Nora and Torvald, which Chastain and Arian Moayed play with tension cranked up to the level of a thriller. That’s reward enough for an evening. But, seeing the two plays one right after the other, Chekhov is the one who takes my heart. Nothing seems forced in his work. I witness the playing out of the characters’ fortunes and I think, yes, that feels true.