08 March 2007

M. Proust, don't bogart those madeleines

I’ve seen a number of plays this year that I had first seen on stage years ago in Boston. This is much less common in theaters where actors speak instead of sing their lines: Tosca and Turandot show up every few years reliably like a comet, but even Shakespeare’s greatest hits are spaced out farther in the rotation. You get odd coincidental resurgences (of Marivaux for example) that seem to crop up in regional theaters like wildflowers after a desert rain, but then years go by without a revival.

First up was Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep. When Bush and Co. deceived this country into its latest imperialist quagmire, there was a national day of staging Lysistrata. The warning went unheeded and the war started to go not quite as planned and then we had a series of productions of the earliest Western play, The Persians (excellent production by Aurora a couple of years ago), in which a powerful invading empire is defeated by a lesser power fighting on its own ground. Perhaps Aeschylus’s compassion and insight in presenting the story from his enemy’s point of view further confused our easily confused administration; we are now at the stage in the war in which the appropriate irrelevant rebuke is to stage Mother Courage, the story of a war profiteer struggling to remain a capitalist in the face of increasing personal loss. This was a good production, but it was competing in my mind against a spectacular production that Peter Sellars did with Linda Hunt at the Boston Shakespeare Company. As with To the Lighthouse there was the puzzling annoyance of amplifying all the songs, which sure alienates me but not in the way Brecht intended. Ivonne Coll was solid in the title role, but I found her occasionally too sentimental – too wistful or too satisfied when contemplating past romances. Mother Courage is not really meant to be a sympathetic or inspiring figure; she’s meant to be a revealing one.

Travesties, the season opener at ACT, was also enjoyable but perhaps a bit too slick. I really love this play (and I feel safe that I’m not just being a snob about catching the references because I loved it when I first read it in high school when I had little idea who Tristan Tzara or even Lady Bracknell were). I really liked the Magritte-like set of randomly floating empty gilded frames against a lightly clouded blue sky. And it was a preview, which would explain some muffed lines and perhaps also why some scenes, such as the librarian’s striptease while shouting Marxist-Leninist slogans, fell flat. But I first saw the play at the Huntington Theater in Boston in a production that brought so much more emotional depth to some of the speeches, particularly in some of Lenin’s speeches.

And then last month at Aurora I saw Pinter’s Birthday Party – again, a solid, enjoyable evening, and I have to cut them some slack because the actor playing Peter was out with laryngitis and we were warned that his substitute, Richard Louis James, was not off book (though he was very impressive – even with script readily available he turned in a solid performance, not just a line reading). But back in Boston, again at the Huntington, I saw a production that still sticks in my mind – I can vividly recall the weirdness and power of Goldberg telling McCann to breathe in his mouth.

Is this just what happens as we get older? If something has lasted in our memories for decades does it automatically have more power over us than what we’ve just seen? Am I doomed to be one of those who haunt the theater saying, “Oh, you should have seen X in the role. . . “? Perhaps these moments made more of an impression when they were new, or when I was.

After seeing Travesties again, I realized that one of the subterranean reasons I had for loving it is that it enacts on stage the weird jumble of random moments, desire, and delusion that the performance will eventually become in our memories.

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