You’ll want to arrive a few minutes before curtain time for director Jack Marshall’s latest exercise in theatrical deconstruction. That’s when the black-box space known as Gunston Theatre Two is closest to total disarrayexterior doors and cinder-block walls exposed, platforms, ladders, and scaffolding tilted at odd angles, house lights up. Actors will be talking shop in tones not meant for anyone else’s ears at that point, as techies test lights and hammer, while other audience members engage in casual conversation, quite as if the show hasn’t yet begun.
It has, of course. Marshall (who staged the stunningly intimate Twelve Angry Men that first brought American Century Theater to audience attention two years ago) delights in blurring the line between performance and real life. And in Orson Welles’ virtually unknown, almost never produced Moby Dick Rehearsed, he and his company have found an ideal vehicle.
The script was Welles’ 1955 attempt to recreate onstage the circumstances of his initial Mercury Theater triumphselaborately conceived ’30s productions for which he had sometimes reversed directorial course just days before the premieres and then been forced to open the evenings by asking his audiences to imagine sets, costumes, and the like. On occasion, Welles and his company were pretty much winging it on opening night, with panicked lighting designers shouting cues as loud as anything being said on stage in the struggle to keep them lit. Welles was a brash newcomer of 22 at the time, and the patrons who cheered him on found his chutzpah as thrilling as his all-stops-out stagecraft.
Two decades later, after Citizen Kane had brought him international stardom, and feuds and controversy had all but exiled him from American showbiz, the ploy didn’t play. The London premiere of Moby Dick Rehearsed garnered mediocre reviews and scant audiences. His plans to film the play evaporated when funding did, and by the time a colleague’s production surfaced on Broadway five years later with Rod Steiger playing Captain Ahab, no one was interested.
But with Marshall’s staging taking full advantage of Charles Matheny’s facial and vocal resemblance to Welles (pointedly identifying the obsessive Ahab with the obsessive director), and employing dozens of the stripped-to-essentials techniques the latter so favored, patrons lucky enough to gain entrance to Gunston before the company has to surrender the hall May 24 are going to be flat-out enthralled.
The evening segues naturally and quite gradually from its unscripted openingin which actors mill around, gabbing about critics (my Washington City Paper colleague Trey Graham was mentioned on opening night), cookies, and casting choicesto something more orderly once Matheny arrives. The actors all seem terrified of the imposing director as he assigns bit parts and runs through the scene from King Lear that they’ll ostensibly be performing later that evening. Then, having told the actress playing Lear’s daughter to deliver her lines downstage with her back to the audience”very bad for you,” he observes, “very good for me”he’s ready to begin improvising a staging of Moby Dick.
Platforms and staircases are roughly placed. The lighting designer is told that any effects he can devise on the spot will be appreciated. The production manager establishes himself at a table with his prompt-script and box of sound-effects stuff. And an actor’s panicked query, “What exactly do you want me to do?” is met by Welles with a severe stare. “Do?” he repeats. “Stand six feet upstage from me, and do your damnedest.”
Then, with a spotlight hitting Timothy Hayes Lynch as he utters a slightly shaky “Call me Ishmael,” the company is off. And running. Double-time.
The adaptation Welles crafted of Melville’s epic novel is one of those cut-to-the-chase jobs for which the director was justly famous. All the great set pieces are therethe sermon about Jonah, Ahab’s nailing of a gold doubloon to the mast, the chase, the harpooning, the smashing of the Pequodwith all accompanying fuss and bother omitted. Welles wasn’t so much author as editor (more than 80 percent of the lines are taken directly from the novel) but he had a masterly, almost Elizabethan feel for what was really necessary in the telling of a story. Character issues are here laid out with startling brevity, place and atmosphere brushed in with sea chanteys, and all energy expended on rendering the narrative as thrillingly as if it were being freshly invented. Marshall needed to make just one addition to the script: He added Pip’s near-drowning from the novel to clarify that the reason this black cabin boy becomes such an obsession for Ahab is that he has experienced the very horror that troubles the captain’s dreams. (In the original production, Joan Plowright played the lad, and Wellesapparently unconcerned that she was a white woman playing a black boy, but worried about the height issueinsisted she do so on her knees.)
ACT’s staging isn’t slavish in its reproduction of rehearsal details. After a few moments of moving the other actors around, the Welles character reverts mostly to playing Ahab and allowing stage effects that would require careful crafting in real life to just happen. Still, Marshall has made those stage effects simple enoughactors with flashlights under chins standing in for headstones in a graveyard, for instance, or a cupful of soda water splashing a whaler’s face in a stormthat for the most part it seems plausible that they might just be impromptu creations.
By the time the director has the whole cast working in tandem, transforming wooden benches into whaling boats or a whirling scaffold into the vortex that sucked the Pequod under, patrons will have happily surrendered to the improvisatory illusion. Marshall does get the whale up there onstage, by the way, in a transportingly persuasive effect involving not much more than a gravestone-shaped piece of wood, a couple of lights, and a Sensurround rumble.
Actually, I suppose that understates the value of the horrified looks on the faces of 16 furiously rowing actors most patrons won’t have seen before. American Century Theater’s company is largely composed of folks who rarely appear on other professional stages, and this production makes the case that that situation should probably be rectified. It also suggests that Marshall should direct more often, as it’s his vision that seems to fully awaken the troupe to its greatest strengths. Other area companies might well have selected this script (though in more than 40 years none has) and done interesting things with it, but it’s hard to imagine any of them doing so much with so little, or wedding the piece so tightly with its performance environment. After eight years of attending shows at the Gunston Arts Center, I felt as if I understood the space for the first time as I exited Moby Dick Rehearsed.
Technical assignments are all capably handled, with special kudos due Ricki Kushner’s clever sound design, which mixes taped effects with noises made by actors clanging on pipes, or leaning this way and that on a creaking wooden ladder that instantly suggests a mast. Also smart is David Walden’s seemingly crafted-on-the-spot lighting, some of which involves handheld spots. In the context of this alleged rehearsal, even the mistakes become compelling. Who knows, after all, whether it’s deliberate when a lighting cue misses. At one point, when things were beginning to seem just a tad slick, Lynch began a line too early, and then had to repeat it after the stage manager finished setting the scene. He should do it every night.
Its cleverness aside, what is perhaps most evident by the end of the evening is that Marshall and his troupe are as besotted with the sort of theater that excites and carouses as Welles was. The author’s famous impatience with actors who emphasized sound over substance, and delicacy of phrasing over action, even gets a quick outing at one early point. An actor is declaring that while Lear was meant to be acted, this Melville fellow’s dialogue is pretty prosaic stuff, meant merely to be read. “Doesn’t the theater need poetry?” he asks in a huff. Matheny’s Welles fixes him in a baleful glare.
“When it is the theater,” he says evenly, “the theater is poetry.”
Damn straight. And Moby Dick Rehearsed sure as hell is theater.
So is Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and of a surprisingly similar sort as it melds melodrama with issues of fate and cataclysm. Shakespeare Theatre’s production, abbreviated to a gripping roller-coaster ride of three and a half hours from the six-hour original, is evidently the play’s first mounting hereabouts since a 1932 run at the National Theatre, and it’s a stylized, ferociously performed corker.
As the title suggests, O’Neill modeled his trilogy, which is divided into sections he called “Homecoming,” “The Hunted,” and “The Haunted,” on the Greek legend of the House of Atreus. Substituting the American Civil War for the Trojan War, and the return of a general in the Union Army on the day of Lee’s surrender for the homecoming of Agamemnon, it sets in motion a chain of events that will claim the lives of all but one of the main characters and ruin the fortunes of nearly everyone connected with them. Modern viewers may call O’Neill’s method soap opera and wince at his primal way with what were, in 1931, newfangled notions of Freudian theory, but there’s no denying the dramatic punch the material still packs.
As the lights come up on the 20-foot-high doors and slatted shutters of Ming Cho Lee’s startling white-on-white temple of a New England mansion, Gen. Ezra Mannon’s doting daughter Lavinia (Kelly McGillis) has discovered that her mother, Christine (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), has been unfaithful with a sea captain named Brant (Brett Porter). What Lavinia doesn’t know is that Brant is the bent-on-revenge bastard child of a Mannon family ancestor and a servant. What she does know is that her father (Ted van Griethuysen), who suffers from heart trouble of both the physical and metaphorical sorts, must be protected from knowledge of his wife’s transgression. And that her brother, Orin (Robert Sella), who has sustained serious wartime head injuries, also of both the physical and metaphorical sorts, must be acquainted with them and turned against the mother he adores.
Even if you don’t know that Lavinia corresponds to Electra, Christine to Clytemnestra, and Orin to Orestes, it will quickly be clear in Michael Kahn’s fiercely controlled, epically epochal mounting that this family is not going to settle its differences quietly around the supper table. By the second scene, Dorn and McGillis are spitting venom at one another with a fury that need offer no apology to the ancient Greeks, and the emotional stakes only get raised from there. Talk of hatred and betrayal, duty and obsession, revenge and murder follow, as do actions that speak as loudly as O’Neill’s deliberately earthbound words. He wanted his characters to be recognizably American, and he achieved that. They have as much in common with the folks on Dynasty or in The Little Foxes as they do with their ancient forebears. This struck the play’s ’30s audiences as its greatest strength but might now have been a giggle-provoking liability, were the evening not being played almost entirely for its stylized, heroic qualities.
Kahn is just the guy to bring those out, having cut his teeth on enough Shakespearean tragedy to choke most mortals. He opens with images of spotlit townsfolkdoll-like creatures dwarfed by the set’s massive doorway and suffocated in Jane Greenwood’s high-neck silk gowns and armorlike wool suits. Then he brings on Dorn and McGillis, auburn-haired warriors in hoop skirts that make them appear as majestic and impregnable as mountains. Their entrances would be suitable for royalty. Their countenances are severe enough to make the most ardent suitor shudder. And both actresses live up to first impressionsMcGillis in the most uncompromising performance she’s yet given in Washington, Dorn in a genuinely regal return to the scene of many previous triumphs.
Most of the men in their lives get shorter shrift from O’Neill but are acted with enough power at the Lansburgh to at least seem plausible antagonists for these overwhelming women. Van Griethuysen makes the Mannon family patriarch a surprisingly vulnerable figure who realizes too late that he should have had the strength to show that vulnerability to his wife. As the general’s mother-obsessed son, Sella initially appears to be a walking Oedipal complex but develops a spine of sorts as the evening progresses. The character is so volatile, leaping with such abandon from tied-to-apron-strings insipidity to jealous rages at the drop of any other man’s name, that it’s hard to know how he might be made more empathetic.
Porter’s Capt. Brant is forthright and dashing enough that you can understand why the Mannon women would fall for him. Lee Mark Nelson’s sweetly overmatched Peter, who has to summon up all his courage to court Lavinia, is a believable presence until the author makes him abandon the love he’s cherished for so long in what appears to be a sudden fit of authorial pique. Also fine is Emery Battis’ servant, who has no courage whatever when confronting the Mannon women.
Whatever the level of the passions involved in the Mannon family machinations, O’Neill’s aim of reinterpreting Greek legend in psychological terms obviously reduces the scale of their story somewhat. With royals battling the gods, it’s easy to chalk everything up to fate, but when it’s New Englanders battling each other in hoop skirts, it’s hard not to feel that everyone should just put down their pistols long enough to talk things out. Whether contemporary patrons find the House of Mannon tragic, or simply overwrought, will depend mostly on their frames of reference, which is one reason Kahn’s staging, which often suggests the grandness of grand opera, is so intriguing. O’Neill’s script is unrelievedly cheerless, and apart from a moment or two of levityas when Lavinia slyly turns an invitation to sit down into a verbal slapKahn enlarges its grimness rather than seeking to lighten it.
This translates as classical, somehow, even though his editing makes events zoom along in an appropriately modern fashion. Not unexpectedly, with that speed comes a feeling that shifts in mood, especially in the last third of the evening, are perhaps just a tad too fast and furious. But then, in a rotating dollhouse with 20-foot doors and ancestral portraits so much grander than life-size that they become physically oppressive, realism clearly isn’t the point.
The stylization of Athol Fugard’s Valley Song is of another variety altogether. This gently evocative one-act playwhich begins and ends with talk of pumpkin seeds, and deals mostly with an elderly black farmer who’s set in his ways and a teenage granddaughter who loves him but needs to break free of his world to explore her ownis deliberately homespun and slight. But like all of Fugard’s work, it can’t help reflecting, and gaining a certain weight, from the enormous issues confronting South Africa.
That said, at the Eisenhower Theater it feels like a too-short visit with an old friend. That’s because Fugard has not only directed the evening but is himself playing both the elderly tenant farmer and the avuncular author of the play that contains him, which means he gets to address the audience directly, and charm the pants off everyone in sight. He also gets to introduce us to someone every bit as ingratiating: the farmer’s ward, Veronica, who is played with loose-limbed abandon by a starry-eyed enchantress named LisaGay Hamilton.
Fugard’s been at the Eisenhower Theater before, most recently playing the stern minister who was determined to move his cantankerous neighbor into a retirement home in The Road to Mecca. While it concerns a not dissimilar struggle for independence, Valley Song is a far milder assignment both in terms of stagingit’s performed casually in front of swaths of draped fabricand of acting, and he treats it as the theatrical equivalent of a pleasant walk at sunset. He’s such a relaxed, natural, engaging presence that only after you’ve been watching for a while will it occur to you that he’s one of the most important playwrights to work in English in this century.
His partner on stage is also remarkable, rrrrrolling her r’s as if a cat had just taught her to purr, slapping her feet on the ground as if they’d never been anywhere near shoes, lighting up the stage with her headlamp grin, and singing to beat whatever band happens to be handy. “I’m Veronica Jonkers, and I want to sing,” she declares early on, with a verve that pretty much brooks no objections. A youngish actress, Hamilton can’t be nearly as young as she appears, because she has somehow managed to star in a dozen or so Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and to graduate from Juilliard’s drama division (which also, I suppose, argues against her being as South African as she sounds).
With these two performing it, what might be a mere character sketch, seems somehow grander, as expressive of national dreams as of personal ones. It’s a slight evening, but one that bursts with quiet eloquence and hope.CP