skills: McKown and Trova in BTFs Miracle Worker.
Noël Coward, directed by Gregory Boyd
Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 8
Finally, there is reason to visit the Williamstown Theatre
Festival’s main stage. While a qualified success, Design
for Living is exactly the sort of production missing thus
far at the WTF. Stunningly mounted and intelligently (for
the most part) directed, it is a vitally necessary play that
carries a special impact today as self-righteous politicians
and intolerant religious zealots seek to limit personal freedoms
and constitutional rights.
Playwright Noël Coward uses a ménage à trois to make an eloquent
plea masked as a confection. In Coward’s comedies, one can
be relatively assured that when his characters are at their
most flippant, the author may be at his most telling.
The trio in this remarkable play are Otto, a painter; Leo,
a playwright; and Gilda, a decorator who is involved with
both. There is also a fourth character, Ernest, who by virtue
of his seriousness and conservatism, lives just outside of
their circle. We follow the changes in their couplings from
Paris of 1929 to London of 1930 to New York City of 1932.
As time passes, Otto, Leo and Gilda are ultimately able to
live, as befits their outré desires, by their own unique design
as a threesome.
It’s a design given wonderful defense by Otto, who says, “We’re
not doing any harm to anyone else. We’re not peppering the
world with illegitimate children. The only people we could
possibly mess up are ourselves, and that’s our lookout.” Coward’s
logic is disarmingly decent.
Campbell Scott (Otto), Steven Weber (Leo) and Marisa Tomei
(Gilda) are a likeable trio. All are excellent actors, and
although all do not shine together on stage in the first two
acts, they eventually glow as a group in the final act.
British accents (and they are practically de rigueur for Coward)
are inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent. Tomei’s seems
to cause problems in delivery (words are occasionally lost).
Weber doesn’t really bother (or get bothered) with one. Scott
does best. However, all three offer sufficient charm, sophistication
and urbane physicality that they mostly manage to circumvent
the language concerns.
Weber most skillfully represents the archetypal Coward protagonist
whose complacence is a powerful disguise and buffer to hurt.
Scott brings the most humanity to the proceedings in his authoritative
performance, but I am not sure that a bit more lightness wouldn’t
Even though there may be a slight underlying darkness (infidelity
and betrayal), this material is best played with debonair
insouciance. When they finally arrive there (Otto and Leo
in Scene 2 of Act 2, all three in Act 3), the play sails with
a high wind and much hilarity.
Tomei, who looks fetching and flatters her every gown with
a silky persuasion, is not ideally cast as an English free
spirit; we occasionally sense her working too hard where all
should be effortless, but her pluck, expressiveness and animation
do much to offset the few off moments. By the time this review
is published, I’ve little doubt she will be a thorough delight.
The production values are spectacular; it is perhaps the most
elaborately mounted play the WTF has produced in the past
nine years. Hugh Landwehr has designed three sets that sweep
us into Coward’s worlds. Rui Rita lights all with panache.
Candice Donnelly provides costumes to savor. And, courtesy
of John Gromada, the music of Cole Porter joins that of Coward
to provide flavor and the occasional ironic comment.
Boyd has directed a fast-paced and thought-provoking production
that is frequently funny and periodically hilarious (as when
Otto and Leo get blissfully drunk and when, later, they become
something of a matched set in top hats and tuxedos). Reservations
aside, it’s among today’s rare agreeable attempts at Coward.
on Deaf Ears
William Gibson, Directed by Gary M. English
Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 14
Helen Keller’s remarkable accomplishments did not end with
the word “water.” In 1888, she entered the Perkins Institute
for blind students in Boston, and in 1904 she graduated cum
laude from Radcliffe. She went on to champion workers’ rights,
women’s suffrage and disabled African-American soldiers in
World War II. Many believe the influence of her teacher and
lifelong companion, Annie Sullivan, as much as her struggle
against blindness and deafness, was responsible for both her
success and her compassion for the disadvantaged. That Annie’s
life was itself a triumph over enormous odds is made very
clear in The Miracle Worker.
I had never paid much attention before to Annie’s story, whether
because it was downplayed in the familiar Patty Duke-Anne
Bancroft movie or because I was a kid and the little girl’s
story was what interested me, I’m not sure. But as an adult
watching the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of the
Tony Award- winning play, it was the reactions of the adults
around Helen—her parents, half-brother, and Annie herself—that
I latched onto. And powerful stuff it is, at least for me.
Surrounded by an annoyingly quiet audience, I cried from the
first scene, when Helen’s mother realizes her baby is deaf
and blind, to the moment when Annie drags Helen out to fill
the pitcher at the pump, stopping only to laugh at Annie’s
fearlessly pointed comments. The Miracle Worker is
a great play, and BTF’s production goes a long way toward
bringing to life.
I’m not certain why Saturday’s matinee audience didn’t respond
more willingly to the show, but one reason may be the casting
of 25-year-old Justina Trova as Helen. For young playgoers,
there is a distancing whenever an adult, however talented,
attempts to play a child (I know my kids felt it). For this
grownup, however, Trova’s performance was moving, especially
in the pantomime-like scenes with Annie, played by Tabitha
McKown. As strong as Annie is, I would have liked McKown to
be even stronger; in one scene she’s drowned out completely
as Helen wreaks havoc on the house. (And did Sullivan, who
grew up in a Massachusetts poorhouse, really have an Irish
accent?) Of the Keller family members, both Jennifer Roszell,
as Kate, and Kasey Mahaffy, as her stepson, stand out; in
fact, so vibrant are these characters that an almost distracting
undercurrent of attraction runs between them. As Captain Arthur
Keller, Michael Hammond is more of a figurehead than an imposing
presence, which may be Gibson’s point. Rounding out the household
are two lively character actors, Mary E. Hodges as the servant
Viney, and DeAnn Mears as Aunt Ev.
Beowulf Boritt’s handsome blue-gray-toned Southern gothic
set, nicely complemented by David Murin’s bustles and waistcoats,
provided another element more appreciated by adults than kids,
who found the almost Faulknerian mood a little disturbing.
In the end, it may be that for The Miracle Worker,
less is more. The subtexts, innuendo and political references
designed to bring depth to the play for grownups take away
some of its immediacy and force as family fare. And as one
of the few shows that appeal to children without pandering
to them, maybe that’s enough.
to Coast: On the Road Home
Marc Wolf, directed by Emily Mann
Theatre Festival, Glens Falls, July 27
In October 2001, New York author-actor Marc Wolf set out from
Seattle on a cross-country journey back to a very different
home than the one he’d left six months earlier. Tape recorder
in hand, Wolf stopped at places all along the country and
listened as people talked about what God, country and New
York City meant to them in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
In Coast to Coast, Wolf re-creates the conversations
with a wide variety of interesting speakers, including a Native-American
basketmaker who finds herself suddenly reversing her anti-government
views; a pair of Latinas who believe New York is the place
to find acceptance; a German hitchhiker who disdains American
technology but loves our cookies; a theater person from Chicago
who knocks New Yorkers for believing they’re the center of
the world; and Sal, the hysterical hairdresser from Brooklyn
who finds himself on 9/11 doing a blow-dry for a congressman’s
wife who’s totally oblivious to the fact that her friends
are not flying into D.C. that night for a party. While some
episodes need trimming, Wolf’s choice of characters and comments
does paint a picture of a nation viewing a national tragedy
through very individual eyes, looking for some meaning in
an incomprehensible situation.
Wolf’s portrayal of 20 different characters is impressive,
though he does better with some than with others. Stefan,
the German hitchhiker in the desert, is dead-on; but the 6-year-old
girl who’s carving a Halloween pumpkin with her dad is clichéd
and annoying. Sometimes it took a while to figure out the
ethnicity of the speaker, and the multi-person scenes were
sometimes strained. But there are many wonderful moments:
the Mississippi dentist originally from India who says he
feels like “Islam got hijacked” and sees American Muslims
as providing a bridge between two cultures; the visitor to
the Martin Luther King museum in Memphis who wished he’d been
taught about racism instead of sheltered, but who’s learned
that “living with hate can destroy you”; the coal-miner’s
widow who had to leave town, pressured by the gossip over
who got more compensation money and who had stopped grieving
and was dating again. “I felt like people weren’t forgetting
soon enough,” she says.
Perhaps the most important element missing in Coast to
Coast is from New York City and Wolf himself. I agree
with the audience member who told Wolf and director Mann in
the discussion afterwards that the final scene with a writer
living near Ground Zero rambled on rather than bringing things
to a head. And it would have been nice, at the end, to hear
Wolf’s own thoughts on what went down. But for all its rough
spots, Coast to Coast is a powerful, funny and sad,
a fine entry into what is sure to be a growing body of 9/11-inspired
work that starts to make the move from history into art.
Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Ted Sperling, suggested
by the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 1
The stories, two of them at any rate, of Ryunosuke Akutagawa
made their first significant entrance into Western culture
when Akira Kurosawa ingeniously combined two of them to create
his breakout film, Rashomon. The stories, “In the Glen”
and “Rashomon,” became the basis for Kurosawa’s complex examination
of faltering faith and the impossibility of arriving at objective
truth. Since, the title has become synonymous with a situation
where human subjectivity precludes absolute truth.
Using the same two stories that inspired Kurosawa, Michael
John LaChiusa has turned them into separate one-act musicals,
R shomon and Gloryday. No credit is directly
given Kurosawa for his early role in developing and introducing
the material, but then what LaChiusa has created hasn’t an
iota of the resonance of that great film—and any comparison
to it merely shows up LaChiusa’s weaknesses.
The first and better piece details four testimonies regarding
the rape of a woman and the subsequent killing of her husband
after the two attend a showing of the film Rashomon
(the theater marquee is missing the letter “a,” hence the
fractured title of LaChiusa’s musical). As in the uncredited
film, the witnesses speak to an unseen entity (the court or
police) whose point of view the audience shares. Testifying
are a janitor who may have seen the double crime; the wife;
the husband (through a psychic); and a thief who is the alleged
perpetrator. What emerge are three and a half different versions
of the truth and a big lie.
While they are universal in meaning, Akutagawa’s stories and
the film are intrinsically Japanese, and contain elements
that don’t translate easily into 1950s American society. The
Japanese codes of honor and shame don’t really play here.
Neither does the reliance on a psychic’s testimony and the
presence of a ghost, which works in feudal Japan but merely
seems silly in the new setting.
The commanding reason to see this piece is Audra McDonald,
the astonishing actress whose performances in Carousel,
Ragtime, and A Raisin in the Sun—and whose CDs—made
me a believer before her current work in Williamstown. R
shomon lacks great, lasting music and a strong book, but
it does give McDonald a chance to show her remarkable talents
as a dramatic actress and a singer. In the various versions
of the rape/killing, McDonald plays three different characterizations
of the wife with accompanying emotions that include lust,
fright, humiliation, hate, confusion and vengefulness. Despite
the overall failings of the music, LaChiusa at least affords
her an opportunity to showcase her powerful and eloquent vocal
range, particularly in a song titled “No More.” McDonald’s
presence here is one of the most significant additions in
recent years to the WTF’s roster. I hope it is the first of
As the thief, Michael C. Hall is also excellent, but LaChiusa
has given him a character of less depth than that of Toshiro
Mifune’s cinematic character. Henry Stram, Mary Testa and,
particularly, Tom Wopat, ably fill out the strong ensemble.
Unfortunately, the orchestra periodically plays too loudly,
obscuring parts of their songs. It could be due to the fact
that the orchestra is situated in a balcony above the acting
area on a plane nearly the same height as the fourth row of
the theater where I was seated. But to obscure one note from
McDonald is a sin beyond forgiveness.
The same actors reappear in Gloryday, which deals with
a priest’s crisis of faith following the Sept. 11 attacks
on the World Trade Center, but they can’t save it from the
sameness of LaChiusa’s music. It also doesn’t help that the
bulk of the play rests on Henry Stram’s uninteresting priest.
As well, where Kurosawa poignantly portrayed a priest’s loss
of faith in man, LaChiusa’s priest doubts God. It’s a valid
choice, but it lacks a human element in application.