The Soldier's Music

** Sybille Pearson, in True History and Real Adventures, also has a little problem about asking and telling; hers has to do with learning to ask history the right questions and then figuring out how much to believe of what you're told. Her sprawling tall tale of a play pushes this dilemma up against another contested era of American manliness, the Old West, circa 1890. A Scottish factory girl from Ontario, besotted with the image of Calamity Jane in a touring melodrama, runs off hoping to find the real Jane, with a variously motivated band of young drifters left behind when the melodrama folds. Pearson maps their free-form odyssey in abrupt, breezy scenes that at their best have an exhilarating playfulness. She mixes this quality, regrettably, with a schoolmarmish urge to impart 1990s lessons that correct the 1890s myths on points of race, gender, capital versus labor, and other matters by now all too familiar. While half the play seems to invite adults to fun and gentle mockery of the old stereotypes, the other half, pompously crushing the paper-thin myths against outcroppings of rocky fact, sounds like an extra-pedantic after-school special.

Pearson's mixed results are doubly frustrating because the pine-scented freshness that wafts through so much of her script is zestily fanned by many parts of Michael Mayer's busy, but rarely overbusy, production: G.W. Mercier's showy, self-critiquing design, with its sly mix of 1890s stage conventions alternately played straight and cartooned; Angela Goethals's crisp yet sweetly vulnerable performance as the heroine; the young, fiery clarity Adrienne Carter and Daniel Bess bring to the roles of her two best friends; and Kathleen Chalfant, in multiple roles, as a sort of cockeyed godparent to the enterprise, though with her voice painfully impaired by her long run in Wit. Even so, her snarling-drunk Calamity and her fake-Hapsburg aristo are the gems of the evening.

** Two bodies, the laws of physics firmly assert, can't occupy the same space at the same time. This hasn't stopped Andrei Serban from attempting to make two productions of Hamlet occur on the same stage simultaneously. In one of them, Liev Schreiber is giving a vigorous, lucid, and often moving account of the title role; in the other, Serban's wildly random directorial choices have led everyone astray, till they all scream pointlessly, and do nothing that makes any sense whatever. Shakespeare has Hamlet say that the purpose of theater is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to Nature"; the fuddy meers Serban holds up, borrowed from a long list of old European funhouses, mostly reflect his notion that, since others have staged Hamlet so many times, he'd better do something different. His sense of this need is so weighty that, when Schreiber's Prince gripes about all the bad actors he's seen imitate humanity so abominably, the players troop on with posters of every famous Hamlet from Sarah Bernhardt to Kevin Kline; one might reasonably respond that people who act in crass houses shouldn't stone thrones.

Marc Wolf in Another American: taking arms against a sea of troubles
photo: Carol Rosegg
Marc Wolf in Another American: taking arms against a sea of troubles

Details

Another American Asking and Telling
By Marc Wolf
Theatre at St. Clement's
423 West 46th Street 212-279-4200

True History and Real Adventures
By Sybille Pearson
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street 212-353-0303

Hamlet
By William Shakespeare
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street 212-239-6200

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Serban's nothing if not lavish of effect: You get three ghosts and two Fortinbrases; Polonius wears a medieval gown and carries a mini tape recorder; Francis Jue, as Player Queen and Osric, always enters on fly wires. But his flood of gadgetry conveys no sense of the play; it merely makes Schreiber's eloquent anguish seem more out of place than Hamlet feels in Claudius's kingdom. Critics can only sympathize; I'll review Serban's interpretation, if he ever arrives at one, but this paper doesn't pay me to inventory the contents of knickknack shops. In the new century, Santa, please bring me a theater with stronger motives and more cues for passion.

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