Thursday, March 28, 2013

Two Plays

On Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I took Joshua’s sister to Bloomington to catch the matinee performance of Bloomington Civic Theatre’s production of “Moonlight And Magnolias”, a comedy/farce by Irish screenwriter Ron Hutchinson. Sunday’s was the final performance of the Bloomington “Moonlight And Magnolias” run.

“Moonlight And Magnolias” was premiered in Chicago in 2004, and had a brief New York run the following year.

The play tells the story of the frantic efforts of producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and script doctor Ben Hecht quickly to produce a salvageable script for “Gone With The Wind” during a five-day hiatus in the film’s production.

The outline of the story is based upon true events: Selznick, forced to shut down (at a cost of $50,000 per day) production of “Gone With The Wind” owing to script problems, fired director George Cukor, replaced Cukor with Fleming (pulled from the set of “The Wizard Of Oz”), called in screenwriter Hecht—and gave Fleming and Hecht five days to produce a new script, barring them from leaving studio premises until a finished script was in hand.

I am not confident there is much of a play in Hutchinson’s chosen subject—but, if there is, Hutchinson certainly bungled the opportunity. “Moonlight And Magnolias” is one of the most inept plays I have ever seen performed.

Hutchinson has, fundamentally, written a four-character farce (the fourth character is a secretary who keeps Selznick, Fleming and Hecht supplied with “brain food”—bananas and peanuts—during their five days of confinement). During the farce, entire scenes from the film are acted out; the audience is supposed to find hilarity in the men’s impersonations of Scarlett, Melanie, Mammy and Prissy.

The audience is also supposed to find hilarity in the fact that Hecht has never read Margaret Mitchell’s novel and knows absolutely nothing about the plot and characters he is supposed to capture and recreate in a screenplay. That Selznick and Fleming are called upon to correct Hecht’s many bone-headed misperceptions about the material at hand is intended to be a source of unending amusement.

Onto this supposed “farce”, Hutchinson has added a coating of “serious drama”: while piecing together their screenplay for A Tale Of The Old South, Selznick, Fleming and Hecht discuss anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany and racism in 1930s America. That Selznick, Fleming and Hecht were themselves Jewish is supposed to make their discussions of anti-Semitism and racism “meaningful” and “insightful” to the audience.

As farce, “Moonlight And Magnolias” is simply inept. As comedy-with-serious-undertones, “Moonlight And Magnolias” is flatulent and crude—and surely offensive to many viewers.

I am amazed “Moonlight And Magnolias” is ever produced. The play is unworthy of attention from theater companies or theater audiences. The play’s spotted history should, I would think, be sufficient to scare off producers. (The 2005 New York presentation was very poorly received; a 2007 London presentation was nowise adjudged a triumph, either).

The Bloomington production was not good—but I suspect no cast and no director could bring such feeble material to life. We more or less sat comatose during the entire performance, waiting for our confinement to end.


The Guthrie Theater has imported a theater troupe from Great Britain—called, simply, Propeller—to present to Twin Cities audiences “Twelfth Night” and “The Taming Of The Shrew” in repertory for six weeks. On Tuesday evening, Josh and I took Josh’s sister to a performance of “The Taming Of The Shrew”.

The Propeller productions have sharply divided local critics and audiences. Reviews have run the gamut, from highest praise to most withering dismissal. Word of mouth has been largely negative, much more so for “Twelfth Night” (the preferred choice of the reviewers) than “Taming Of The Shrew” (a production critics singled out for its anti-feminism).

I thought it was absurd for anyone to pronounce the Propeller “Taming Of The Shrew” anti-feminist. The overriding theme of the production was inherently feminist: Kate was portrayed as a sympathetic victim of physical and emotional abuse, viciously mistreated and battered by her brute of a lover, the malevolent Petruchio. If anything, the Propeller “Taming Of The Shrew” was as feminist an interpretation as one is ever likely to encounter.

Propeller’s production was extremely physical, even violent. This was a “Taming Of The Shrew” from the streets of today’s London: ugliness was everywhere, menace threatened to burst through the surface at all times.

As in Shakespeare’s time, all roles were played by males—but, unlike in Shakespeare’s time, there was no attempt to make female characters appear to be women. Propeller’s Kate and Bianca, both jarringly unattractive, were all-too-obviously men, and very masculine ones at that. At the end of the play, the actor playing Kate wore a wedding dress—but atop his head was a butch haircut and on his face was beard stubble.

The purpose of Propeller, I believe, is to offer “cutting edge” productions—but the persons in charge of the company appear to have received their educations from Sunday Supplements. There was no coherency to the production, no penetrating thought behind the staging, nothing original to be experienced. The production was a mere recycling of the practices that dominate contemporary British theater: every line was delivered as irony; nothing said or done was to be taken verbatim; every costume was deliberately multi-decade and therefore impossible to “place”; no one was allowed to be good or selfless or virtuous or sincere. In short, every dogma of the day was observed.

The production also lacked surface sheen, a critical shortcoming that single-handedly made it impossible for me to succumb to the onstage proceedings. The actors were unimpressive if not lame, the blocking confusing, the “look” of the production unappealing and unattractive, the whole enterprise cheap and provincial. I felt as if I were watching something thrown together by prison inmates in some Third World jail.

The Propeller “Taming Of The Shrew” was the sort of production that, by rights, should play to school audiences in Shoreditch—and never set out to tour the world.

Why The Guthrie imported this stuff is beyond me.

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