Friday, June 08, 2012

Three Plays

While Joshua’s sister was visiting, we took her to three local theater productions.


Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty”, at Minneapolis Theatre Garage, was the first production we attended. “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” was a presentation of Walking Shadow Theatre Company.

Hatcher, who lives in Minneapolis, wrote his English Restoration comedy for a Pittsburgh theater troupe in 1999. The play remained little-known until it was adapted into a film in 2004. Since release of the film, “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” seems to have popped up all over the place. There are often two or three or even four productions playing concurrently at American repertory theater companies coast to coast. I have never seen the screen version, known simply as “Stage Beauty”.

The plotline is clever. In 1661, with Oliver Cromwell dead for three years, theater begins to make a comeback in London after a decade of Puritanism. However, the conventions of the time require that only male actors portray female characters in licensed theaters.

With “Merry Monarch” Charles II installed on the throne, a further loosening of public morals is encouraged—and the Sovereign becomes convinced to allow females to portray female characters onstage, a concept heretofore alien to British theatrical tradition.

This action drastically affects the career of London’s leading actor specializing in female roles, who finds it impossible to accept the new convention—and who finds it equally impossible to make the transition to male roles in convincing fashion.

The actor’s journey from actor playing women to actor playing men is the fulcrum of the tale. The actor’s romantic relationship with Lord Buckingham is explored, as is the actor’s growing relationship with the young actress that takes his place as London’s leading Desdemona. Several historical figures appear in the play, most prominently Charles II and Samuel Pepys.

This all sounds like a marvelous basis for a sophisticated comedy, but the play is better in theory than in practice. Low comedy is emphasized, and the speeches are nowhere near witty enough or stylish enough. The playwright must be applauded for his plot outline—but he should have turned over the actual writing to someone else.

I did not think that the Walking Shadow production, much-acclaimed in the local press, was strong. The cast was weak, and the director did nothing to shape the material.

Everyone onstage was working very, very hard—and it was obvious that everyone onstage was working very, very hard. There was plenty of effort to be seen, yet very little command.

What was most intriguing about the production was the music—there were three musicians playing period music on period instruments—and the physical production, very imaginative for such a small and uncomfortable performing space. (Minneapolis Theatre Garage is precisely what its name implies.)

For the local production of “Compleat Female Stage Beauty”, Hatcher had revised his original text. I have not read the published play, so I have no idea how the revision differs from the original.


The second production we attended was Beth Henley’s “Crimes Of The Heart” at Bloomington Civic Theatre.

Henley’s is a name that has disappeared from view. After a short burst of notoriety for “Crimes Of The Heart” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest” in the early 1980s, Henley fell from theatrical radar screens. None of her subsequent plays has attracted any notice, whether in New York or elsewhere.

“Crimes Of The Heart” is the story of three eccentric Southern sisters, all ding-a-lings, one of whom has shot her husband, one of whom is a failed singer who has suffered a mental breakdown, and one of whom is an unattractive wallflower with an unhealthy tendency to spend the day talking about reproductive organs.

The sisters are intended to be colorful, even endearing, and the audience is invited to enjoy the sisters’ efforts to accommodate themselves to their peculiar family history (their mother had hanged herself, along with the family cat) and to come to terms with their odd set of relatives.

In reality, the sisters are too strange, and too off-putting, to be taken seriously, and the drama rings no more true than a bad comedy skit that fails to hit its mark.

“Neil Simon Meets Eudora Welty” is how Josh characterized “Crimes Of The Heart”, and Josh was not far wrong: one-half Catskill comedy and one-half Southern Gothic tale, the play borrows—without success—from two hopelessly dated sources. That the play won 1981’s Pulitzer Prize For Drama is incomprehensible today.

The Bloomington Civic Theatre production was inept. No one associated with the production presented evidence that he or she had a clue how to put the play across. I suspect cast and director must have given up on the material early in the rehearsal process.


The third production we caught was Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” at Theater In The Round. “The Hollow” is Christie’s own adaptation of her novel of the same name, although the 1951 play differs significantly from the 1946 book—among other things, Christie eliminated the character of Hercule Poirot from the stage version.

“The Hollow” has never enjoyed a Broadway production. The original London production was a great success, but New York producers took a pass on the material, finding it much inferior to “And Then There Were None”, which had enjoyed a long New York run the previous decade.

“The Hollow” is typical Christie: a murder occurs at a weekend house party outside London, and the audience is invited to try to solve the crime before the author reveals the perpetrator and the motive behind the murder.

The play is exceedingly formulaic. It includes every known device from the Christie canon, including the unexpected arrival of a major film star—one of those trying circumstances everyone must face at one time or another.

The play is also exceedingly slow-moving. It is so slow-moving, in fact, that the viewer’s mind wanders throughout the exposition and far into the resolution.

The Theater In The Round production was earnest and sincere, but the play resolutely failed to come to life.

I doubt that “The Hollow” can successfully inhabit the modern stage.

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