04 January 2007

news upon the Rialto

The first theatrical event after I returned and partly recovered from Bayreuth was Giles Havergal's one-man Death in Venice at the tiny (probably the preferred word is intimate) Zeum theater. Britten's opera shows that Mann's novella can definitely work on stage (I haven't seen Visconti's film, which is mired somewhere mid-queue on Netflix -- did you know there is a limit to your queue size, and it's 500? Don't ask how I know. I just do), but Havergal's efforts though valiant were unsuccessful. He adapted the text himself and performed all the parts except Tadzio, who was played by a haunting piano tune, which solves certain casting difficulties (especially in a one-man version) but creates the problem of disembodying a character who should be sensed very physically. I had re-read the book when I returned from Germany, so I could see that Havergal was not only faithful, but overly faithful. Those who came expecting to see hot pedant-on-pubescent action were probably mystified and bored by the long discussions of literary idealism and the Dionysian impulse. There were too many stretches of intellectual discussion that work better in a more reflective medium like print than on stage, where without context and conflict they seem overly obscure and detached from the lives being shown. There was a group of girls in the audience (possibly acting students) who giggled loudly at every mention of duty. You can't really blame them -- we've been cued by decades of angry dramas to hear anyone who says "duty" as obviously a conventional dullard and probably some sort of degenerate. (This problem arises with contemporary productions of Ibsen too, as I believe I mentioned in an earlier post about Ghosts.) Here's another case where a switch in phrasing from "duty" to something like "social responsibility" would better convey the seriousness of the concept without triggering the audience's sense of the dramatic convention that anyone who would use such terms is automatically a hypocrite (not that this is purely a cliche of our drama -- it's a cliche of our lives too, as anyone can tell who has read any news stories about fundamentalist preachers). And Havergal made the huge mistake of having the entire story narrated first-person by Aschenbach as his final piece of writing (with a eulogist briefly introducing the evening and then resuming right before Aschenbach's death, which of course he wouldn't be writing down). And then he minimized one of the story's key moments by applying the cosmetics and hairdye of the barber's horrifying and comic make-over to a memorial bust on the sparsely furnished stage rather than to Aschenbach himself. The switch from omniscient to first-person narrator completely misses the division between his work and the way he chooses to end his life, and the way that producing his profound and serious works had forced his life into a certain austere pattern that cracked and dissolved under the pressure of -- well, of what? Desire? Loneliness? Age? Dionysus? Cholera bacillus? Re-reading the story I became aware again of how much is going on in it, and how slippery its meanings are, and how little of all this was being reflected on stage. The evening had the sadness of a labor of love gone wrong.

On the other hand, I saw Adam Bock's Typographer's Dream at Shotgun Theater a week later, and it was evocative and poetic in a way that justified all the praise I'd heard. Bock had an excellent sense of when not to spell things out and his actors did him justice. And I can't praise Shotgun enough for having patrons check in at the ticket booth and pick their seat upon arrival, thereby avoiding the crowding and rushing of open seating (which I hate) and rewarding those who show up early (me, probably needless to say). I left feeling the evening had made it worthwhile to put up with the audience, even the loud braying of the woman next to me. I look forward to my next Adam Bock play.

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