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It’s hard to imagine a cheerier play about an impending execution than Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. At the Clark Street Playhouse, the evening begins with raucous drinking songs, spends the better part of its two-plus hours carousing, dancing, and cracking wise in the tradition of British music-hall entertainments, and concludes with a transcendent burst of a cappella harmonizing led by a 19-year-old British soldier who is about to be shot by the Dubliners with whom he’s singing.
The year is 1958, and, as one of the residents of Pat’s sprawling rooming house notes, apropos of nothing in particular, “the days of heroes are over.” The days of whoring and drinking, however, are going strong—as drag queens, call girls, and drunken Russian sailors stagger upstairs for a quick tumble, then drift back to the first floor to down a pint or two. Or three.
Big-hearted Pat (David Jourdan) and his earthy wife, Meg (Nanna Ingvarsson), run their amiably bawdy establishment with an eye to inclusiveness, so that a prim elderly gent entertaining a Bible-toting lass can feel just as comfortable as the johns who’ve come solely for sex. Everyone’s offered a beer and a song and encouraged to partake of whatever pleasures the other residents are offering. And that seemingly goes double for Leslie (Josh Barrett), the uniformed young Brit who’s brought in blindfolded and trussed-up by members of the IRA, who mean to kill him at sunrise if they get word that a captive Irish youth has been executed by the authorities.
Leslie, who is unfailingly polite and guileless, is treated as something of a celebrity when his IRA guards aren’t present. Pat and Meg are more than usually solicitous, as are the house’s working girls, and he’s allowed to roam so freely that he very nearly escapes by accident. But the fact that he’s not going to outlive the morning begins to weigh on everyone as the evening progresses—especially on Teresa (Sarah Ecton), a naive young maid who takes a shine to Leslie and would love to help him if that didn’t involve betraying her country.
Behan’s approach to the material is briskly satirical, and liberally sprinkled with poetic musicality, so it’s appropriate that the Keegan Theatre’s staging begins as a sort of concert. As the audience files in, Jourdan sits center stage with a beer and a guitar, encouraging patrons to join in on the choruses. The sparse but thoroughly game audience at the preview I attended did so without much prompting, and it’s easy to imagine how a bigger crowd could be cajoled into rowdiness before the play proper gets under way. Then, once it does, whenever Behan’s dialogue threatens to bog down under the necessary weight of explaining the Irish Troubles, Susan Grevengoed sits down at the piano or Jourdan grabs his guitar, and before long someone’s dancing a jig. Ingvarsson, who’s been far too long absent from local stages, keens a ballad at one point, and time effectively stops until she’s through.
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That said, there are curious variances in tone in Mark A. Rhea’s staging, uneven transitions between broadly played music-hall sketches and scenes essayed more realistically. After a relatively straightforward first act, the director allows the mood to fragment more than is entirely wise, with some sequences pitched as melodrama and others as cartoon. Still, The Hostage is an ambitious undertaking for so small a company, and Keegan’s 16-member cast acquits itself admirably, pretty much without exception.
Would that something similar could be said of the actors in The Seagull, the Anton Chekhov classic that is almost entirely undone by the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, whose playing ranges from passable to inept.
STS became known hereabouts for its movement-based pieces, most of which have been directed by Andrei Malaev-Babel and have featured contributions by the remarkable husband-wife mime-and-choreography team of Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili. The Tsikurishvilis are otherwise engaged this time, and Malaev-Babel has had to rely on a company that moves far more gracefully than it acts. Alas, he’s interpreting a script that is famously about stasis.
Simply put, there is no movement in The Seagull. The characters are emotionally paralyzed by ennui and hopelessness, and in the STS staging, they’re not being asked to move physically, either. Except for Irina Koval’s Masha, who glides attractively around the stage in a floor-length black gown saying that she’s in mourning for her life, and Anne Bowles’ Nina, who wears white fetchingly and brings energy to a few confrontations, the players are either passively unpersuasive or actively amateurish. Malaev-Babel has unwisely cast himself as the pretentious writer, Trigorin, and makes a hash of the character’s big speech about art and life.
The staging is aimless, the design work pedestrian, and the evening sentimental and soporific. “There’s no tedium as bad as this sugary countrified tedium,” says someone during a desultory game of cards. Agreed.
The title of Steven Berkoff’s solo show Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil suggests a serious, professorial evening, presumably enlivened by snarled snippets of Elizabethan verse. It does not suggest the frenetically animated mix of stand-up comedy and informed, snippy scholarship that’s on display at the Studio Theatre through next weekend.
Berkoff is an accomplished actor and director who presents himself here as a man who’s not entirely in control of his hands, which fly around his head and torso as if they had minds of their own. He’s also a curmudgeon with strong views on everything from critics (whom he doesn’t like a bit) to colleagues (his Olivier and Pacino impressions are hoots) to accepted wisdom about the Bard’s plays (“Of course Hamlet’s a villain….He starts out studying philosophy, returns home for his father’s funeral, and within six months, he’s a serial killer”).
Dividing the Bard’s various creeps into categories, Berkoff gives us the “mediocre” villain (Iago), the genius (Richard III), the outcast (Shylock), and the “wannabe” (Macbeth). His rendering of both parts in the scene in which Lady Macbeth convinces her husband that he should kill the king becomes a neat exercise in actorly contrivance. His dissertation on the social causes of Shylock’s wickedness and the cowardice of contemporary directors who’ve softened the character is at once ferocious and intellectually sharp.
He can, on occasion, be less than subtle in giving voice to the Bard’s evildoers, but the task of embodying eight different ghouls in under 90 minutes may necessarily involve a certain degree of caricature. That’s especially true in an evening that uses digression as its primary transitional technique. Watching Berkoff morph—from, say, an Elizabethan character, into a bad actor playing the character, into a professor explaining what’s bad about the actor playing the character—can be dizzying. But it’s often amusing enough that serious fans of the Bard, and of classical performing, will doubtless feel the need to pay him a visit while he’s in town—if only to see the improvement he claims to have wrought on actorly expressions of surprise: a manic head-swivel he describes, not a bit inaccurately, as a “quadruple-take.” CP