Ways and Meanings


The Green Bird began as a would-be solution to a different aesthetic problem, two centuries earlier. The art of professional touring troupes that we call commedia dell'arte—a loosely structured melange of ad-lib dialogue on standardized scenarios, relieved by the performers' preset routines—had died a merciful death after nearly 400 years of use. Goldoni had taught the best actors in Venice to throw away the old masks and trust the playwright's lines. But there's always nostalgia at a dead art form's wake, and the chief mourner, Count Carlo Gozzi, was determined to make the dead walk again. Gozzi had genius of a kind—sufficient to inspire minds as diverse as Schiller and Meyerhold—as well as enough sense to know that you can never go all the way home again. He created a half-improvised mode of play that mixed fairytale spectacle and moral parable with low comedy, indulging his own gift for high-flown fantasy along with his affection for the old clown shenanigans. The result is a mishmash genre that had wide appeal in late-18th-century Europe—look at Mozart's Magic Flute—but makes an icky mixture today, unless you have Mozart to sweeten the deal.

Naturally, in our postmodern daze, Gozzi's chic: Anyone who can render a simple story incoherent with digressions must be doing something right. Broadway's Green Bird, wandering in this chaos, seems to be seven or eight different shows, in irritating succession. The straightforward, slightly stiff Bermel-Emery translation has apparently acquired more than one layer of rewriting, like a slab of rock on which you can count the geological strata. Fortunately, the deal is sweetened quite often by that Mozart of the visual, Julie Taymor. Long stretches of dialogue find her helpless and her actors, masked or otherwise, adrift; then something that's pure magic occurs, to which nothing on Broadway could be compared if Taymor hadn't staged The Lion King. A giant talking statue rolls onstage, champing its jaws and blinking its eyelids; magic apples dance up and down in the shape of musical descant, and astonishing creatures like the title character swoop down out of nowhere.

Driving force: Paul Butler and Carl Lumbly in Jitney
photo: Craig Schwartz
Driving force: Paul Butler and Carl Lumbly in Jitney

Details

Jitney
By August Wilson
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street 212-246-4422

The Green Bird
By Carlo Gozzi
Adapted by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery
Cort Theatre
Seventh Avenue and 48th Street 212-239-6200

Taller than a Dwarf
By Elaine May
Longacre Theatre
Broadway and 48th Street 212-239-6200

Blood on the Dining Room Floor
By Jonathan Sheffer
Based on texts by Gertrude Stein
Peter Norton Space
555 West 42nd Street 212-244-7529

Jesus Christ Superstar
By Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Ford Center for the Performing Arts
Broadway and 42nd Street 212-307-4100

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Much of what goes on between the visions has been tightened and improved since Taymor first staged the piece for Theatre for a New Audience four years ago, but the story still unrolls slowly, an ornate fuss over nothing. (And far too convoluted to summarize.) While many of the cast have either sharpened their work or, as new arrivals, brought a welcome freshness to the material, the one real performance triumph, even more glorious than the last time around, belongs to the only actor who finds a deeper and more vivid life behind his mask: Derek Smith as the lovelorn king, Tartaglia. His face hidden beneath a white rectangle, framed by droopy curl-paper eyelids and cutout Clark Gable ears, he's flamboyant and physically free, lighter than air even while his character's afflicted with pratfalls and paranoia. Apart from Taymor's puppet visions, he's the only thing onstage that seems to be what Gozzi has to be: Italian.


For all that, Taymor's work has a quality of imagination otherwise unavailable in the commercial theater. Take Elaine May's Taller Than a Dwarf, a reworking of her long-ago comedy, A Matter of Position, with the action now shifted from Manhattan to Queens; ordinary folk like May's nebbish-hero can no longer afford Manhattan rents. The scenes have been fragmented, and the characters now talk freely to the audience, the supporting cast stressing the peripheral nature of their roles with obnoxious humility. The hero is a mother-dominated sap for whom liberalism is the equivalent of toadying to everyone around him; one morning, after too many domestic crises, he gives up altogether, and his insistence on staying in bed, à la Oblomov, makes him a hero in everyone's eyes, despite the household disasters it causes. He learns to beat the system at its own game because, you see, everyone is corrupt. Isn't that incredibly original? How did May ever think of it!

Apart from the newly splintered structure and some Y2K jokes, the revisions only succeed in pointing up the script's age: A boss who will casually trot out to Queens Boulevard to drop off work for a supposedly sick employee is hard to find on today's roster, even when the office computers are down. Alan Arkin's production, on a heavy set by Tony Walton that lurches like a battleship when it shifts, tromps through the old routines patiently. Joyce Van Patten, Marcia Jean Kurtz, and Cynthia Darlow are tolerable as three of the intentionally annoying women in the hero's life, and Sam Groom makes his boss interestingly weird. Parker Posey plays a personable, well-spoken young woman who, as this geek's wife of seven-plus years, is flatly unbelievable. Such actual acting as is required comes from Matthew Broderick, who harmonizes the hero successfully with his likable movie-star self. To demand more of an actor in such a play would be like asking hemophiliacs to give blood.


Which brings us to the opera Jonathan Sheffer has made out of Gertrude Stein's unfinished attempt to write a murder mystery, Blood on the Dining Room Floor, produced by the resuscitated WPA, in a staging by Jeremy Dobrish, at the Signature Theatre's Peter Norton Space. The work dates from the period after The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklaswas published, in which Stein, nearly 60, suddenly found herself a world-famous best seller—and blocked. Living mostly at her country home in Bilignin, she noted down local happenings, including several mysterious deaths, while attempting to restart her creativity. Sheffer's libretto combines passages from the fragmented unfinished novel, with the slightly more factual treatment of the incidents Stein put later into her bestseller's sequel, Everybody's Autobiography. He then frames the result with the sight of Alice, at Gertrude's grave, chatting to her about the "crimes" and, at the end proffering a solution—pat and, to my taste, overly cute.

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