Nijinsky’s Last Dance begins at Signature Theatre with the amplified sound of bare feet scraping against floorboards and the sight of a straitjacketed man dragging himself to the stage. It’s a startlingly earthbound opening for a solo show in which almost every element will soon be sent soaring, but it gets the mood precisely right. If a dancer is to do battle with gravity, he must first plant his feet firmly on the ground. The same goes for directors and playwrights.
Also for actors. “I am the faun,” cries Jeremy Davidson’s robust Vaslav Fomitch Nijinsky to his unseen jailers, instantly reducing himself in physical stature by adopting a desperate fragility of manner. In this opening sequence, set in 1919, he’s playing the unbalanced Nijinsky who was to spend the last 30 years of his life in mental institutions. But as Davidson slips out of the character’s straitjacket and into memories of his meteoric career, the young ballet star who thrilled audiences and became an embodiment of balletic experimentation comes smoothly to the fore.
Davidson is not, by training, a dancer, but as choreographed by Karma Camp, he suggests the sort of figure on whom great ballets might be created. His movements are as muscular and impassioned as his manner of speech, so that when he tells of leaping through the window at the end of Le Spectre de la Rose and landing in the arms of five strong men, it’s easy to imagine both the leap and the rapture he felt at being caught.
Norman Allen’s script links such career anecdotes to events in the dancer’s life with linguistic grace and enormous efficiency, sweeping briskly from Nijinsky’s first ballet classes in Russia to the riots that greeted his choreography for Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps to the nude posing he did for sculptor Auguste Rodin to the troubled American tour on which he began exhibiting symptoms of madness. Allen’s script requires Davidson to bring to life not just the title character, but also the major figures in his life, and the actor does so with discipline and flair. He’s especially engaging as Sergei Diaghilev (the impresario who took Nijinsky first to bed and then to Europe), adopting a heel-to-toe, Chaplinesque gait and a jaunty manner that suits the script’s portrait of the famous producer perfectly. Davidson also finds distinctively coquettish, but never campy, ways to limn Nijinsky’s devoted wife and dance partners.
Of all the actor’s accomplishments, though, perhaps the smartest is that he’s found ways to suggest, through posture and bearing, that Nijinsky’s descent into madness was a literal descenta submission to gravity. Obviously, no fate would have been crueler for a man who could, in the playwright’s words, “seduce the air itself, so that it holds him aloft.”
Joe Calarco’s fluid staging appears to have been physically built on Davidson’s body, much as ballets are built on the bodies of dancers. There’s scarcely an extraneous detail or movement to the production, with Lou Stancari’s setting little more than a white square of flooring that Daniel MacLean Wagner’s fabulously effective lighting can paint with expressionist shadows and vibrant colors. Spare and calibrated to within an inch of its life by the director (whose all-male, four-actor mounting of Shakespeare’s R&J is currently a smash hit in Manhattan), the production has the overall confidence and assurance that Signature has previously been able to bring only to its stagings of Sondheim musicals. It’s also tailor-made (one actor, simple set, no props) for commercial production.
Look for it to be playing off Broadway in a New York minute.
One of the great mysteries of Broadway history is how audiences ever let James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter get away from them. This uproariously bitchy slugfest about kingly succession barely eked out a run of two months, despite crackling dialogue and a terrific original cast headed by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris.
The film (which starred Peter O’Toole as England’s King Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his imprisoned queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine) fared better, winning an Oscar for Goldman’s screenplay and another for Hepburn’s performance. But the script is really too literary to play comfortably in cineplexes. It belongs on a stage, which is where Round House Theatre has now put it in a sharp, funny production tailored to the talents of tart-tongued Jerry Whiddon and Tana Hicken, and a supporting cast without a single weak link..
“What shall we hang? The holly or each other?” Whiddon’s Henry snarls sweetly as his scheming wife eyes the castle’s Christmas decorations. From that locution, it should be clear that the play’s language is modern, though the events being chronicled took place in the 12th century. At another moment, shortly after baiting her husband with the assertion that she slept with his father on the night before their wedding, Hicken’s Eleanor stares straight at the audience and shrugs brightly, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
We’ve clearly entered The Subject Was (War of the) Roses territory here, a cheerily timeless theatrical space where family bickering can be inflated exponentially until it reaches the level of royal-battles-royal. With empires in the balance, the stakes are high; and with smartypantses lurking behind every tapestry, the dialogue is spirited. “Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I’m the only pawn,” moans Henry’s mistress, knowing full well she’s being clever. The script is designed to be a feast for the ear, if not really for the mind. It’s entertainment, not history, but it’s great fun when deftly handled, and at Round House, Donald Hicken has mounted it to a fare-thee-well.
Get your money back,” barks the elderly Italian matriarch as she peers at audiences for Lillian Garrett-Groag’s memory play, The Magic Fire. “Go home. These people…they say anything to sell tickets.”
Consider yourself warned. These peoplethe author includedreally will say anything to put themselves on the right side of a historical conflict, even if they have to fudge the details of that conflict. Garrett-Groag is an Argentine expatriate, writing about what she clearly sees as the bad ol’ days in Buenos Aires around the time of Eva Perón’s death. Her quasi-autobiographical family dramedy concerns an Italian-Austrian clan that has fled European fascism for a New World it apparently views in operatic termsa place of noble heroes, overarching villains, and trials by fire.
Authorial stand-in Lise (Vilma Silva) qualifies as a classic “unreliable” narrator, which is to say, her subjective memories of her youth are so colored by nostalgia as to be seriously misleading. Standing on the sidelines as her own childhood replays at center stage, Lise is shocked to discover that the neighbor she fondly remembers as “Uncle” Henri was a jackbooted Peronist thug, her opera-loving father was spineless, and her erudite mother willfully obtuse. Almost as startling is the realization that an annoying, rabble-rousing journalist who squired around one of her aunts was the only hanger-on in the Berg/Guarneri household with principles worth mentioning.
The problem is that in simplifying Argentine politics for theater audiences who’ve already absorbed the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, Garrett-Groag is nearly as unreliable as her stand-in. The author adopts the attitude of Argentina’s upper middle classes toward Juan and Eva Perón, casually equating their brand of corrupt but democratically elected working-class populism with fascism. She does so chiefly by conflating the abuses of Peronism with the horrors of later military regimes, even having a character use the term “disappeared” as a noun to describe political prisoners, though the play’s action takes place a generation before that coinage entered common usage in Argentina.
All of which amounts to unnecessary overstatement in a play focusing on family dynamics. Libby Appel’s handsome, smartly acted staging starts out a bit too much in the manner of Ragtime but is nicely observant in its details. The Berg/Guarneri clan stocks its liquor cabinet with appropriate spirits, for instance, and reads La Prensa, the most conservative daily in Buenos Aires.
But Garrett-Groag’s characters and dramatic structure are much like those of Neil Simon in his later comediesa narrator kibbitzes on the sidelines as iconic immigrant types interact in brightly comic ways until the playwright announces that something real is at stake.
In The Magic Fire, the announcement comes at a birthday celebration, in the second of three longish acts so freighted with exposition that dramatic action is nearly crowded out altogether, and involves a political fugitive the household is unknowingly harboring in its kitchen. Much gnashing of teeth ensues, and there’s a trifling bit of suspense as the family dawdles until it’s too late to take action. We never meet the fugitive (the brother of the family cook)which is probably a good thing, because it would be a real letdown if he proved as unexceptional as the rest of the characters.CP