When Shakespeare said, “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” he was talking about power struggles that, if not as cosmic as the metaphor he chose, were at any rate matters of giant importance, like who should rule England. The line kept running through my head this past week, while I was watching what seemed to be, in their varying ways, the aesthetic equivalents of a Shakespearean power struggle. When the elements of a production battle among themselves over which is to rule, what’s involved may not be as grave as questions of kingship, but the result often suggests a combat zone.
Gordon Edelstein’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (Laura Pels Theatre), imported from New Haven’s Long Wharf by the Roundabout, means to interpret the work, not combat it. Unluckily for Edelstein, Williams’s beloved classic is one of the rare plays that doesn’t require any directorial theatricalizing. Its theatricality is already in the text, worn, like the author’s poetic heart, visibly on its sleeve. Edelstein wants to tell us that Williams’s Tom Wingfield, having broken free of his tormented family situation, becomes a writer; that the memories tormenting him fuel his art; that the grim time those memories embody may have impaired him as much as it did his mother and sister.
Bless Edelstein’s innocence. Or, maybe, bless his divided loyalties. His efforts to make visible, onstage, the dark inner ferment of the playwright’s mind do little except disrupt the work’s rich atmosphere. The stark, lofty set focuses on a typewriter table, downstage left, where an older, alcohol-stoked Tom (Patch Darragh) sits, pounding out the script of what we see, reading it over as it proceeds. Edelstein makes Darragh, a fine actor in other contexts, keep his nose to the paper while reciting Tom’s narration; fat chance we get of seeing those tricks he says he has in his pocket.
Yet, as I mentioned, Edelstein’s loyalties are divided. Far from letting his gimmicky concept bash the script into nothingness, he sets up a counterforce. The play Tom is writing may be dark and harsh, like his agony over it, but it has a vital core: The more helplessly Laura (Keira Keeley) simpers, the more strength her mother must summon. Hence, Judith Ivey’s Amanda, a performance that would be first-rate in any conventional production, but which here has the triumphal quality of a public banquet given to quell rumors of famine. Seemingly as oblivious to concepts as to the cobwebby sentimentality in which actresses too often drape Amanda, Ivey has thrown away all of the role’s accumulated kitsch: Hard, calculating, and desperately concerned for her daughter, this Amanda has, if anything, fewer illusions than her son. Consequently, her efforts to keep up a brave show of gentility become that much more moving, while Williams’s work emerges, as it should, feeling astonishingly bright and fresh, once Ivey’s dynamism has nudged the conceptual clutter out of the way.
The clutter in Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, as performed at BAM by William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, wasn’t conceptual, but visual and structural. Close to Shakespeare in time, Purcell (1659–1695) was probably the composer with the strongest innate grasp of the poet’s work until Berlioz and then Verdi came along. Tragically for us, by Purcell’s time, the theater Shakespeare knew had vanished, shut down by 18 years of civil war and Puritan rule. The reconstituted Restoration theater in which Purcell worked was quite different; the two geniuses only met through misguided “adaptations,” by writers ranging in quality from John Dryden to the unknown hack (probably one Elkanah Settle) who turned A Midsummer Night’s Dream into the masque-laden mishap that Purcell infused with music resplendent enough to make BAM audiences in 2010 sit through four hours of incoherent visual inanity, marginally relieved by lumps of Shakespeare’s play, clumsily cut, staged and acted with appropriately lumpish mediocrity.
Some of the Shakespeare worked anyway: Even a director of Jonathan Kent’s heavy-handedness can’t ruin jokes and romantic twists that have charmed four centuries’ worth of audiences. And virtually all of Purcell’s music, as realized by Christie’s band of singers and instrumentalists, cast its spell, no matter how weirdly or crudely astray Kent led its visual component. The four-hour performance ultimately produced feelings of fatigue and frustration, not because of its artistic flaws, but because its two halves didn’t jibe. Once an audience has seen Shakespeare’s “mechanicals” play their slapstick Pyramus and Thisbe, the theater event is over; a dollop of poetry to round it off is all you need. But Purcell, whose adaptation contains no such characters, winds up his evening with a long, lavish, stately masque, dominated by one of the most gorgeously plaintive arias ever written. The schizophrenia of trying to feast on both events in one evening was what made the bodies and brains of exiting audiences sag with exhaustion.
Brains may sag at Playwrights Horizons, too, over Kia Corthron’s lengthily titled A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, but for more exciting reasons than mere fatigue. Daring, perplexing, infuriating, Corthron is a writer whose sociopolitical passions struggle eternally for precedence with her equally rich dramatic instincts. The war of content versus substance that alternately energizes and debilitates her plays is perfectly summed up in this one’s second act, when its hero, a young Ethiopian (William Jackson Harper), spends a great deal of time wrecking a relationship he’s just worked very hard to bring about, between two characters in whose lives he had no business interfering to start with. God, the world’s water supply, and cultural differences between Africans and African-Americans get tossed about in passages that sound like research reports, alternating with flashes of character and story that seem only tenuously linked to them.
Everything would seem too facile and unworkable—and often too loud in Chay Yew’s startlingly forced production—if the passions driving Corthron weren’t so palpable. I hate this play; I love her work. The contradiction sits there, waiting for her to write a next play that can bridge it.