Though T.S. Eliot’s writing always seems to aspire to the conditions of drama, his plays rarely wind up in the hands of someone who can endow them with vivid theatrical life. Ironically, Eliot’s biggest stage success may have been Fiona Shaw and Deb Warner’s recent incantatory reading of The Waste Land. This Is the Way the World Ends, a double bill of rarely performed Eliot plays (Washington Square United Methodist Church), may not convince anyone that the poet and playwright are equals, but at least the works have fallen into adventurous hands.
Edward Einhorn makes full use of the church locale in his staging of Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot’s menacing, at times even nihilistic, comic ritual about a woman who foretells her own death with a deck of playing cards. The building’s acoustics unfortunately prove to be a significant problem. But even more detrimental is the production’s lack of a visual focus. With the ghoul-faced chorus intoning from the upper balcony, the East End bachelor girls chatting in front of the altar, and the murderous Sweeney running back and forth between the two, Einhorn’s potentially compelling theatrical effects are almost entirely diffused.
Director Ian Hill has more success negotiating the cavernous space with The Rock, Eliot’s choral dramatic poem about the founding of a church. Hill’s hyperactive layering of the mise-en-scène is almost Foreman-esque in the way it sets up an alternative text that both competes and comments on Eliot’s own. While unflaggingly inventive and sharply acted (especially Michelle Enfield as the dervishlike Girl), the theatrical bombardment makes it difficult for the production to find its center. Still, the lovely candle-lit ending hauntingly evokes an environment in which the dramatic poet’s quest for an authentic spiritual life can finally commence. —Charles McNulty
Directors reviving a classic apparently need to show how pertinent to the current age it is—else, why bother? The Almeida Theatre Company’s Jonathan Kent hasn’t excused himself from this task in his imported production. Shaking out Racine’s Britannicus (BAM) for its relevance to the way we live now, Kent apparently noticed how like a board of directors meeting Racine’s view of Nero’s agitated court is. So he’s had designer Maria Bjornson run up a corporate headquarters anteroom in which—wearing Paul Smith and Chanel suits—Nero, his mother Agrippina, and his brother Britannicus can consider high-level love and lust as if they were market-share concerns. It’s a valid reinterpretation, although eventually Racine feels reduced to Rattigan—or Executive Suite. As they speak the loose-metered rhymed couplets into which Robert David MacDonald has translated the neoclassical lines, the actors light cigarettes and refresh drinks. The plot illustrates an apothegm Racine couldn’t have heard, because Lord Acton hadnyet declaimed it: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The absolute power corrupting everything, including himself, is Nero, who lusts after his brother Britannicus’s beloved Julia and schemes to part them. Meanwhile, Nero’s mother Agrippina finagles to regain the sway she previously held over the throne. Though Nero and Agrippina are the principal snakes in the imperial viper’s nest, Racine’s naming his play after the wronged, earnest Britannicus is a reminder of the lip service the 17th-century playwright paid to the primacy of virtue. The prime virtues here are Diana Rigg’s efficient, officious Agrippina and Julian Glover’s conniving aide, Narcissus. Even more showy is Toby Stephens’s Nero, who holds his arms so tightly to his sides he risks popping himself. —David Finkle
Tête à Tête
“Why is the head so important?” asks a tortured Nicola L. toward the end of her single-concept offering, The Banquet of the Beheaded (La MaMa). Because of her lifelong obsession with the pate, Nicola has become the MC of an annual meeting of famously decapitated characters, real and fictional, including such luminaries as Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, John the Baptist, and Medusa. Atop a cloth table with head holes cut out for actors, each of the 12 personages delivers a monologue focusing on the events surrounding their deaths, then sings a verse of “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” The formal constraints of this piece do not allow for theater—if you like filmstrips or Web sites more than drama, then this is a show for you. Some of the more obscure stories, like that of Princess Misha of Saudi Arabia, executed in 1977 for cohabiting with her fiancé, are interesting in and of themselves. Occasionally, a factoid rises above the torpor—Genet carried a photo of killer Desire Landru, Jayne Mansfield was Miss Roquefort Cheese—otherwise the monotony is broken only by Nicola’s decapitation folk songs. Trapped under their table, the actors of the Lab Theater attempt to make the best of it, despite the parade of facts they have no hope of dramatizing. The performances that make an impression do so for the wrong reasons: Maria Bunina, as Mansfield, justifies her Danish accent with a dopey story about learning Danish in the afterlife. Nadia Steinitz as Princess Misha, not inappropriately, makes taffy out of the English language. Banquet is an anti-theatrical achievement: 12 corpses onstage, and the show never comes to a head. —James Hannaham