sex on the beach: Bomer and Mudge (standing, seated)
in Villa America.
and directed by Crispin Whittell
Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 22
seems to be no compelling reason for Villa America
to exist. Well, in actuality, it exists because Crispin Whittell
was commissioned to write a play that would dovetail nicely
with the Williams College Museum of Art’s concurrent exhibition
about Gerald and Sara Murphy and their circle.
is that Whittell’s play presumes a knowledge of who the Murphys
were. He assumes his audience will know that they were wealthy
expatriates who settled on the French Riviera where they created
a social circle of artistic and literary luminaries in the
the characters Whittell has written into his fiction, it would
seem that something arresting would result. Matters begin
sloppily enough when the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Nate
Corddry in a frequently annoying performance) visits Sara
Murphy on the beach outside her Easthampton home in 1968.
With most of the Murphy’s circle of artists dead, Fitzgerald
and Murphy reminisce about old times. A poem-inspiring full
moon looms over the gentle dunes that descend downstage into
pure, unblemished, if rather coarse, sand. The setting by
Mimi Lien is among the WTF’s nicer efforts, as is the delicate
lighting by Thom Weaver.
not much of what Fitzgerald and Murphy discuss is of much
substance, the setting at least promises something. Part of
the problem lies in Corddry’s rather mechanical delivery of
Fitzgerald’s lines, and much of Corddry’s problem lies in
the stiffness of the lines he must utter. This is less dialogue
than speechifying for the sake of delivering exposition and
position points about subjects that have not hooked our attention.
At any rate, the ghost is a transparent contrivance that is
improve as Jennifer Mudge takes over the character of Sara
in 1926, as she will in the subsequent flashback scenes. Mudge
successfully creates a woman of sufficient magnetism that
she will become the focal point for the play’s quartet of
men: Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and her
beautifully utilizes a clipped delivery, full of sharp angles
and representative of Sara’s wit. This exists in exciting
counterpoint to her physical poise and voluptuous allure.
never convinces us that Fitzgerald is a heavy drinker. He
does, however, lose his annoying quality when called upon
to get angry, arguably his few lines distinguished by genuine
emotion in the play.
Bomer fares better as Hemingway. He conveys a raw animal magnetism,
and we believe him when he says that he feels best after “a
drink, a smoke and a fuck.”
Kenzler has the least glitzy role as Gerald Murphy, and unburdened
by iconic status he performs well within the confines of his
character, but as is true of the other men, we don’t get a
full sense of who he is and what motivates him, save for the
last scene in the play.
is given briefest treatment, and David Deblinger gives an
amusing sketch of the artist. The reason for his inclusion
is clear enough: Picasso is the only one of the artists to
get Sara to take off her clothes, an action that reveals a
figure worthy of inspiring sensual paintings or succulent
prose. But is that one moment the point of the play? Very
likely. As Hemingway reveals earlier, men are all dogs.
Bernard Shaw, directed by Gregory Thompson, AandBC theatre
Summerscape, Annandale-on-Hudson, through July 22
the bad news: This is one of the most mind-numbingly long
plays I’ve ever seen, topping the charts at three and a half
hours (with a 20-minute intermission). Early critics complained
after Saint Joan opened in 1923; Shaw crankily defended
the clas- sical length. Certainly, though, some of the crustier
speeches (by the Bishop of Beauvais and the Inquisitor, for
example) could be cut without harm.
are left on the audience throughout much of this production,
which takes place on a circular stage, so one feels one can
hardly swallow without everyone noticing. It’s a long three
and a half hours.
good news: These are some of the most worthwhile hours you
will spend (and the seats are comfortable). If you’ve been
pining for British theater but can’t afford the trip to London,
hie thee to Annandale-on-Hudson. Gregory Thomp son’s direction
is inspired, and the actors fully embody their characters,
with Louise Collins showing both Joan’s infectious naiveté
and her final transcendence. In her final scene, her speech
is so impassioned that spittle gathers at the corners of her
breaks with tradition by framing the play as a flashback,
beginning with the epilogue, when Joan’s ghost appears to
her friends and foes, who wear contemporary clothes. Thompson
explains the play’s relevance today: “All over the world there
are young men and women who hear voices from God telling them
to rid their countries of foreign invaders.” True, but I am
more struck by their dissimilarities to enlightened visionaries
like Joan. And one only wishes for more modern-day judges
who were as eloquent as Shaw’s.
the Irish-born Bernard Shaw’s pen, the English language is
burnished to a high shine, and these actors convey both his
rhetorical deftness and his playfulness. In the first scene,
Captain Robert de Baudricourt (Richard Heap) is consternated
because his hens are not laying eggs. In this humorous incident
are contained important themes of the play: the superstitions
of the Middle Ages; the importance of class; the idea that
a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. As the subtle Archbishop
of Rheims (Tom McGovern) later explains, miracles may be simple
sleights-of-hand, but “that does not matter: If they confirm
or create faith they are true miracles.” We know Shaw used
the historical record for many of Joan’s words, including
her brilliant statement “I cannot tell you the whole truth:
God does not allow the whole truth to be told.”
any larger-than-life figure, there is a danger of romanticization,
but Shaw’s rationalists—the Dauphin (a marvelously pouty Rhys
Meredith), the Inquisitor (David Fielder), the Earl of Warwick
(Richard Heap)—counterbalance Joan’s spiritual certainty.
Also, the audience is aware of the historical context without
being distracted thanks to marvelous costuming and set by
Ellen Cairns. Especially gorgeous is the coronation garb worn
by the Dauphin and the robe of the Earl of Warwick.
critics see Saint Joan as didactic, and they are right
insofar as we hear about the action (Joan’s visions, the siege
of Orleans, and even her burning) through dialogue. But watching
Thompson’s Saint Joan is like spending time with the
most difficult but brilliant history teacher you ever had:
The Socratic dialogue is worth sweating over.
won the prestigious Jerwood Young Vic Directors Award in 2006.
The Richard B. Fisher Center theater is a perfect setting
for Thompson’s vision: It reminded me more of the ancient
amphitheater than of Broadway, encouraging the audience to
think of themselves as part of the play. Certainly, this production
at the Fisher center also deserves to be remembered as one
of the best.